Don’t be fooled by the cover. This is a story about waiters.
Like the camel at the feast for the emperor of Abyssinia, which is stuffed with an antelope, stuffed with a turkey, stuffed with a fish, stuffed with an egg, this is a book rich in detail. I Served the King of England is a jokey, funny, dirty and quirky sort of Bildungsroman.
The life story of Ditie, a waiter, wastrel, and eventual millionaire, it is a glorious celebration of life in all its fleshy pleasure. This was partly wish fulfilment. The novel first appeared in 1971, when Hrabal’s native Czechoslovakia was still under the thrall of a bleak communist regime. Not being much of a clarion call to the proletariat, it was originally distributed hand-to-hand in illegal samizdat copies.
Ditie is a satirical everyman who passes through a Europe brought to its knees by war. Rather than taking sides, Ditie simply makes the best of what he can get. At times he seems utterly amoral. At one stage he works as the head waiter in a Nazi base where a selective breeding programme is in progress. It is here that Hrabal expresses the feeling familiar to waiters and serving staff the world over:
If was as if I wasn’t there at all, as if I meant no more to them than a clothes horse … because I was someone who served them.
In his strange detachment from events, Ditie is a mere observer who wiles away his time in houses of ill repute until the horrors of the twentieth century become too much even for him. Eventually, he deserts the city for a lonely life in the forests. It’s almost as if the whole century has crushed the spirit of the cheeky kitchen boy that we meet at the start of the narrative.
Along with Closely Observed Trains, this work earns Hrabal his place sipping a pils at the head table of Czech literature alongside the mighty Ks of Kafka and Kundera. 2014 also happens to be the centenary of his birth.