I Served the King of England
By the author of "Closely Observed Trains", "The Small Town Where Time Stopped" and "My Brilliant Solitude", this novel is the story of a Czech waiter in the 30s and 40s, set against the backdrop of the country's history.
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A poetic-symbolic narrative - woven as if with bright threads of Beckett, Dylan Thomas, and Kafka - tells the rags-to-riches (and back to rags) life-story of a Czech hotel waiter from the mid-30's to the near present. From Czech writer Hrabal, who wrote Closely Watched Trains (made into a 1967 movie) and The Death of Mr. Baltisberger, 1975. Known to the reader only by his last name, Ditie, the narrator here gets his start by selling frankfurters to passengers at the train station (and keeping the change as the trains pull out, taking his customers with them). Becoming busboy at a country hotel, then at another, then waiter at a grand hotel in Prague, Ditie is immersed in the flow of life around him (including sex), is fascinated by money and by accumulating it ("And so I tested the power of pure money"), and is trained in the high style of the waiter's calling by various maitre d's, including the remarkable Skrivanek, whose distinction is that he once served the King of England (as for Ditie, he once serves the Emperor of Ethiopia). As WW II gathers, Ditie falls in love with a passionately political German girl, and the story of this doomed and misled love between Slav and Teuton provides both grimly farcical anti-German comedy and historical allegory. After the war, from which he profited, Ditie opens his own hotel and becomes a millionaire (John Steinbeck, as a guest, once offers to buy it) but still feels that he is not accepted by the highest social classes: when millionaires are rounded up to be interned, Ditie is passed by, and (in one of the book's funniest parts) is reduced to special pleading in order to be arrested with the very wealthy. By end, Ditie's hotel is in ruins (it's been seized by the state), and, in a simple and poetic shower of symbols, Ditie lives in an abandoned inn far off in the hills, on a road seldom traveled (he's the keeper of the road), accompanied only by his small horse, his goat, and his cat. There, Ditie tells us, he wishes only "to be a world citizen after death," and, on long, snowbound winter nights, watched by his three patient animals, he embarks upon the writing of this book. By an unpretentious European master, a gem-like rollick through vast (and political) themes in a way that manages to touch both head and heart. (Kirkus Reviews)