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(Spoiler alert) Narrator Ditie begins his tale with his first job, as busboy at the Golden Prague Hotel in the 1930s. From a lowly background, Ditie starts to make serious money, and can begin to indulge in the lifestyle of the wealthy guests, whether visiting the girls at the Paradise brothel or throwing handfuls of coins to the poor. The first section of the novel didn't seem to be going anywhere, with its stories of eccentric guests and staff and sexual adventures.
Then comes the German occupation; Ditie falls for Nazi patriot Lise, to the disgust of his countrymen. And goes on to make it big in the hotel business, but loses it all...
As Ditie finds himself in a surreal 'millionaires' prison' the whole thing started to become a bit Kafkaesque and I found my concentration waning.
But in the final chapter, as he is coerced into - and comes to enjoy - a quiet contemplative life, working in the mountains, the writing really became very strong and thought-provoking. Former moments of glory, such as serving royal dignitaries, cease to have the same significance:

"I had obviously changed so much that no one could tell by looking at me that I really had served the Emperor of Ethiopia. But it meant something quite different to me now. When I mentioned serving the Emperor of Ethiopia, it was a way of making fun of myself, because I was independent now and beginning to find the presence of other people irksome, and I felt that in the end, I would have to speak only with myself, that my own best friend and companion would be that other self of mine, that teacher inside myself with whom I was beginning to talk more and more."

A very unusual book which is difficult to review, a mixture of anecdotes and poetry, human desire for wealth, sex and status and a gradual enjoyment of simpler pleasures. Maybe a book about growing up?
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 5 September 2015
This edition of a novel by Bohumil Hrabal, 1914-97, contains an Introduction by the writer Adam Thirlwell that should ideally be read after finishing the book, translated here by Paul Wilson [who admits that many Czechs claim the author to be ‘untranslatable’]. This illuminates the author’s life, all of which was spent in Bohemia, much under the rule of the Nazis and the Communists, and his complex ‘surrealist collage’ style and exploitation of a ‘palavering’ narrator. Bit it also includes plot references that slightly spoiled my enjoyment of the novel.

Thirlwell points out that Hrabal remained an internal opponent of successive Czech regimes but subsequently faced criticism for not taking a more public stand. Written in 1971, this book was first published as an underground typescript in 1979 and then, in book form, three years later. Hrabal with fellow-members of the Jazz Section of the Czech Musicians' Union secretly distributed it before many were arrested and jailed. The political and social challenges of the book to the authorities are difficult for someone without experience of the period to fully understand today.

The narrator is Ditie, whom we first meet as a ‘tiny busboy’ at the Golden Prague Hotel, whose upward and downward career we follow though chapters describing his increasingly important positions at different hotels until, through his eventual marriage to a fervent Nazi, Lise, he becomes very rich, buys his own hotel but later comes to the attention of the post-war Communist regime. From his youth, Ditie is fixated on women with the descriptions of sex in the book being whimsically erotic and perfectly captured in Mio Matsumoto’s cover illustration. Hrabal is not overly concerned with character – even Ditie, who appears on every page, remains frustratingly opaque in terms of psychological make-up and motivation.

Written in somewhat forbidding long blocks of text with minimal punctuation, Hrabal’s story is really a collection of stories that engage through their humour and the naïvety of the central character. The descriptions of Central European hotels, from both above and below stairs, in the 1930s have some similarities to the early part of Ludwig Bemelmans’ ‘Hotel Bemelmans’ but the tone is very much darker, particularly as the reader is aware of the approaching German occupation and as Lise turns out to be such an enthusiastic supporter of the Nazis.

Hrabal’s language changes as Ditie moves from initial youthful innocence to the end of the novel where, accompanied only by animals, he works mending a road in the mountains that few use and writing the story of his life that forms the book. In this was he explains, if not justifies, his actions and demonstrates why, for him, ‘serving the Emperor of Ethiopia’ as opposed to the King of England was so important.

Whilst not completely sure that I understood all of Hrabal’s literary intentions, reading this book has made me want to see the 2006 film adaptation, directed by jiří Menzel.
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on 2 October 2009
I Served The King of England is the tale of Ditie who at a young age starts the only career path available as a waiter in the Golden Prague Hotel (which isn't actually in Prague) and then follow his life as he goes from servant to served and becomes a millionaire. In the process we see through his eyes how the rich Czech people live leading up to the war, a life of gluttony and prostitutes in the main (the book is quite explicit for the delicate of mind out there) and then the change as war reigns and the German's come and take over.

I actually found that when the Germans invaded in some ways the book really came to life. Ditie becomes a German sympathiser, something not written about in many books which is very interesting if occasionally difficult to read, after he falls in love with and after being approved by the relevant bodies marries. This book for me was fantastically written and was darkly comic and the book sort of came alive after the first half of the book which seemed to just follow Ditie as he went about his daily business and observed all these rich people and became obsessed with joining them.

What of the plot? It's very much a straight forward, though quirky, rags to riches and back to rags tale. That isn't giving too much away as it is written on the blurb and there are a few random twists and events (dark and deeply funny) along the way. What about characters? There is a plethora of characters cast in this book but you never really get to know them they may pop up again from time to time but what motivates them and who they are eludes you slightly and I felt that could also be added to the main character himself.

I never really got under Ditie's skin, I still by the end didn't really know anything about him before he started waiting and what made him tick. Well apart from money and sex. He is a slight loner and unlike other books where the loner gives you their internal thoughts Ditie never really gives anything away. It left me leaving the book feeling like I liked it and yet didn't like it all at once which very rarely happens to me. Maybe now I have finished it and the book and I spend some time apart it will grow on me as others have, or not. Strangely though I would read Bohumil Hrabal again despite my fuzzy grey thoughts on the book (not sitting on the fence), after all anyone who can make me whizz through a book with no paragraphs must be doing something right!
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on 10 November 2011
"I Served the King of England" is not, as one might think, a novel about a devoted servant of the British Crown. Indeed, it is not about Britain at all. It is rather an account of the history of Czechoslovakia during the 1930s and 1940s as seen through the eyes of Jan Ditie, a hotel waiter. The title refers to another waiter, one of Ditie's colleagues, who is extremely proud of the fact that he did indeed once serve the King of England. Much of the first half of the novel deals with Ditie's rise from busboy to waiter to head waiter in a luxurious Prague hotel, where he too gets to serve royalty in the person of the Emperor of Ethiopia. (I use the Americanism "busboy", even though it is rarely heard in Britain, because it seems to me that we do not have any precisely equivalent term). I did not find this part of the book particularly interesting, as it consists of little more than a picaresque series of Ditie's moderately amusing anecdotes about his life in the catering trade, interspersed with some satirical passages at the expense of the gluttonous, avaricious and lustful Czech bourgeoisie of the pre-war years. It should be noted, however, that the proletarian Ditie fully shares their characteristics, especially lustfulness, as he spends most of his earnings on the services of prostitutes.

The novel becomes more interesting, and Hrabal's satire more biting, after the Nazis invade Czechoslovakia in 1938/39. Ditie does not allow this event to disturb his complacent lifestyle, but rather welcomes it because he has fallen in love with an attractive German woman named Lise, who is in good standing with the Nazi party, and he sees marriage to her as a way of helping himself to rise in the world. (he even justifies the invasion to himself on the grounds that it is necessary to protect the Sudeten Germans from the jingoism of the Czechs). His ultimate ambition is to own a hotel of his own, and briefly achieves this aim after the war, during the short democratic interlude between liberation in 1945 and the Communist seizure of power three years later. He raises the money by selling a collection of valuable stamps which Lise has stolen from their Jewish owners. (She, however, does not live to see her husband's triumph, having died during the war).

The novel was written in 1971, but could at that time only be published in an underground samizdat edition, as Hrabal was a dissident at odds with his country's ruling Communist party, which had tightened censorship following the Soviet invasion of 1968 and the crushing of the "Prague spring". Despite its satire at the expense of the bourgeoisie, "I Served the King of England" is not a work which would have been likely to improve Hrabal's standing with the Communists, as the events following their takeover are satirised even more mercilessly. (The puritanical regime might also have taken exception to the book's sex scenes). Ditie's hotel is confiscated, and he himself is sent to a prison camp for the wealthy, who are regarded as enemies of the people. Hrabal does not, however, treat the Communist prison system in the serious way that, say, Solzhenitsyn does in "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich". Rather, he treats this episode as a fit subject for farce. Ditie should have been spared imprisonment following the intervention of a former friend, now a Communist official, but manages to engineer his own arrest by proudly proclaiming that he is indeed a millionaire and even showing his bank-book to the police to prove it. His life in the camp itself is treated even more farcically, culminating in a scene where the prisoners change places with the guards.

The book is a first-person narrative, which means that everything is told from the viewpoint of Ditie himself. His surname derives from "dite", the Czech for "child, and there is indeed a good deal about him that is childish or child-like. He is, for example, short of stature and, more importantly, sees the world in a child-like manner, a mixture of naivety and self-centredness. He is quite unable to see the significance of the historic world events unfolding around him. except insofar as those events forward or hinder the satisfaction of his own desires. Optimism, and the belief that every cloud has a silver lining, are generally regarded as admirable characteristics, but in Ditie's case they are anything but. He is the sort of optimist for whom other people's misfortunes are the cloud and his own ability to profit thereby the silver lining.

The ending, in which Ditie achieves a sort of happiness while working as a road-mender in a remote mountain area, has been seen by some as a redemption, a realisation that (to borrow a phrase from Voltaire) "il faut cultiver notre jardin", and a rejection of greed and materialism. To my mind, however, this ending is deliberately ambiguous; it can also be interpreted as Ditie's final act of selfishness, a rejection of the society of others.

"I Served the King of England" takes a satirical look at Czechoslovak history, but its significance goes deeper than that- deeper, indeed, than a satire on Nazism or on Communism. Hrabal is making some sharp points about human nature and forcing us to confront the question of whether, in similar circumstances, we would have behaved better than his anti-hero Ditie. He is well-served by his translator Paul Wilson, whose text reads fluently and wittily. Had the opening part of the book been better, my rating may well have been higher.
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on 31 July 2006
A superbly gifted linguist, Hrabal had a unique and almost untranslatable way with his language - dubbed "Hrabalovstina" by his contemporaries - but this English translation of arguably his best work is absolutely perfect. It follows the comic capers of Ditie as he struggles against class and expectation in Nazi-occupied Prague. Tender and brash, this is a novel of countless wonderful intricacies.
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VINE VOICEon 23 July 2004
Bohumil Hrabal's I Served the King of England is a beautiful, sparse, simply told story about a little man named Ditie. Ditie is a little man in the sense that he is small in stature. He is also little in the sense that he is merely a waiter, a little man who wanders blithely through the critical historical events that buffeted Czechoslovakia between 1935 and 1950 or so.
As the novel opens Ditie is a busboy at the Golden Prague Hotel. On his first day the hotel manager pulls him by the left ear to advise him to "remember, you don't see anything and you don't hear anything." The manager then pulls him by the right ear and tells him that he has "to see everything and hear everything." Ditie manages to learn how to accomplish this seemingly irreconcilable task.
Ditie is an ambitious man whose ambitions focus on acquiring two things: money and 'sensuous' experiences. His life is otherwise void of conscious thought or awareness. In many respects Hrabal portrays him vividly as something less than a complete human being. He earns money on the side selling frankfurters at the local train station. He gains extra tips from passengers ordering frankfurters from the train by fumbling for change long enough for the train to pull out. He decides to become a millionaire after walking into a room to see a portly Czech salesman rolling around on a floor covered with money. Ditie's hunger for sensual experiences is fueled after his first visit to the local brothel, the aptly named Paradise. After his first visit Ditie vows to make so much money that he can continue to explore the delights found there. Hrabal's description of Ditie's introduction to the lure of money and flesh is both comic and delightful.
Ditie leaves the Golden Prague Hotel and makes his way to the Hotel Tichota and then the Hotel Paris where he is promoted to waiter. It is there that he is taken under the wing of the headwaiter Mr. Skrivánek, who knows everything there is to know about being a top waiter. Whenever Ditie asks Skrivánek how he knows a particular fact Skrivánek replies - "because I served the King of England" at a banquet many years ago. Ditie later reaches one of his life's highpoints when he gets to serve the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie. He then gets to answer "I served the Emperor of Ethiopia" whenever a younger waiter asks him for advice. The description of the banquet is another wonderful example of Hrabal's story telling ability.
It is while at the Hotel Paris that Ditie meets and falls in love with a young Sudeten German named Lise. As noted, Ditie is unaware or unfazed by the political events that are in the front of everyone else's mind. He is shocked that his fellow waiters ostracize him because of his relationship with Lise merely because of the troubles in the Sudetenland and the pending German invasion of Czechoslovakia. Ditie merely wants to become a millionaire and make love to Lise. Ditie is fired shortly before the German invasion.
The story takes us through Ditie's life during the war and up through the Communist accession to power in Czechoslovakia. At every step of the way these events swirl around Ditie without seeming to touch him in any real way. He spends a six month term in jail after the war for his collaboration with the Germans but that does not interfere with his plans to open up a spectacular hotel and become a millionaire. Ditie accomplishes this goal just around the time of the Communist accession to power in Czechoslovakia. Again, this does not seem to have any real impact on Ditie at all. In fact, when it is announced that the new regime will impose a horrendous tax on all millionaires Ditie eagerly awaits the validation that paying this tax will accord him. Instead he is horrified when an old colleague, a member of the Czech resistance who later becomes a party leader, whose life Ditie inadvertently saved from the Gestapo manages to obtain a tax exemption for Ditie. Horrified, Ditie marches to the local police with his bankbook to prove he is a millionaire. Of course all his assets are taken and he is sent to a work camp in the mountains.
It is only after Ditie has lost everything that he achieves some sense of his own humanity. It is a redemption that Ditie probably never knew he needed. As the story ends, Ditie wants nothing more than to be buried on the very top of a particular hill so that part of his remains make their way into some streams in Bohemia and the other part make their way into the Danube.
Although it is certainly easy to set out the events in I Served the King of England it is hard to convey the beauty and the comedy of Hrabal's writing. Hrabal's writing style is something of an anecdotal, stream of consciousness storytelling. It reminds me of the times I would sit in a bar, pub, or café in some far away place and come across someone who simply knew how to tell great stories. They might be a tad drunk, they might have told those stories to anyone willing to buy them a pint or too. But they are fun to listen to and sometimes they tell you a little bit about the storyteller and a little about yourself. Hrabal's I Served the King of England is one of those stories.
It is a delightful book.
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First published and distributed secretly during the 1980s in Czechoslovakia, this tragicomic novel by Bohumil Hrabal is a first-person account by Ditie, a teenage busboy at a rural hotel who progresses to waiter, and eventually to successful hotel owner before his fall when the communists take over. The picaresque plot serves as the framework for a series of often hilarious stories about the people Ditie works with, the lives they have led, the values they maintain, their hopes for the future, and the sometimes large chasm between their dreams and reality.

Set in rural hotels, in German camps during their occupation of Czechoslovakia, and in Prague, where Ditie served, not the King of England, but Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia, the novel concludes at the "end of the road," where Ditie resides with his horse, goat, and cat, living on his memories and writing his autobiography--this book.

Ditie is a charming story-teller, using the casual, almost innocent language of a young boy at the beginning and becoming philosophical and contemplative by the end. Hrabal's sensitivity to small details and his accurate depiction of real people responding to real situations in sometimes odd and often darkly humorous ways make this sometimes satiric novel a delight to read. Ribald and rowdy in his descriptions of his own sexual awakening and in the stories of his customers' peccadillos, Ditie maintains his dignity when he describes the important people with whom he comes into contact--the headwaiter who "served the King of England," the President of Czechoslovakia, and eventually Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, for whom Ditie is personal waiter.

The novel takes a new, darker turn, when Ditie marries a German woman and leaves Prague to live in the mountains--at a breeding station the Germans have established to develop a "refined race of humans." Lise, his wife, travels widely for the Reich, once returning from Warsaw with a suitcase full of valuable stamps, confiscated from Jews, which guarantee their financial future. Their lives are less secure, however, and Ditie eventually dissociates himself from the Germans and tries to re-establish a life of his own, this time as the owner of a Czech hotel built with the proceeds from the sale of the stamps.

By turns hilarious and poignant, satiric and sensitive, the novel depicts many aspects of Czech society and culture, but it is, above all, the story of Ditie, in many ways a Czech everyman. With symbolism throughout, and a repeating character, Zdenek, the headwaiter who "served the King of England," who appears at every crossroads in Ditie's life, the novel is more than a comic romp. A record of a time, place, and culture, it is also Ditie's meditation on his life and his role, if any, in the wider world. Soon to be released as a major film by Academy Award-winning Czech director Jiri Menzel, who also directed the film version of Bohumil Hrabal's Closely Watched Trains, this novel deserves to find a wide, long-overdue audience. Mary Whipple
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on 15 December 2013
Hrabal was a new name to me after seeing the film version of Closely Watched Trains. The story takes us through the experiences of a young Czech man working in hotels and the girls he meets, to his eventually buying a hotel of his own during the period of the Second World War, and the problems he faced taking on a German wife and her giving birth to their idiot son. It is written with such unique charm and wit that it is hard to find a comparison. Hrabal is a writer all to himself. I gather there is a film version of this book too, but forget that and read instead.
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on 20 November 2013
I found this book riveting. It's an account of the life of a character whom I found very sympathetic - a waiter who aspires to own his own hotel, then does and later loses it all. It follows the political experiences of the Czech people. It is said that Hrabal's writings are impossible to translate into English, but the translator has managed to produce a wonderful book which kept me enthralled from beginning to end.

Valerie Norris
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on 24 February 2003
Having been offered this book I had no idea what to expect. I had no idea who the author was or what the book was about. The only thing I knew was that the setting was Prague, a city I visited in the summer of 2002, when the Vltava burst its banks and flooded the city.
As it's written in the first person at first I thought it was a non-fictional book. It had all the markings of a biography.
Still, there were times when, as the author writes, "the unlikely becomes true" and after a few of those strange events I decided, rightly, that this work is fictional. The magic was still there, though.
This is a story about a boy, Ditie, who starts selling hotdogs at the Prague train station in-between wars, when Prague's bourgeoisie is at its height, through when he becomes table waiter at several hotels, then a millionaire through chance, until finally he is mending a road somewhere in Bohemia in the middle of winter, victim of the Communist regime.
The narrative flows quickly but full of intricate detail; funny yet tragic at times; childish yet aware. It is as matter of factly as possible and pages go on before a paragraph ends and another starts. Yet the book is far from boring and Ditie's adventures and misadventures kept me entertained for days.
What seems to be so wonderful is how all his life he hardly ever seems to be in control, how fledging everything is, success and failure. Ditie endures hardship with hardly a wince though. That's the lesson I learned.
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