Friday, 5 October 2012

A Country Book Swap. .

One of the things I look forward to each week is my knitting night; I meet up with a lovely group of women at a cafe not too far from where I live, and we drink lattes, eat cake, knit and discuss all manner of subjects. The group is a nice mixture of ages, with some born and bred in Liverpool, and others who are newcomers to the city, one even newer than myself.  We exchange a lot of tips about the city and have the odd moan or two about British bureaucracy.

One woman who moved here from Prague several years ago, is a big reader and we recently exchanged books by favourite authors from home.  I gave her Margaret Laurence's A Jest of God (which fortunately she loved - she's asked to borrow The Fire-Dwellers next), and she in turn pressed Bohumil Hrabal's I Served the King of England, translated by Paul Wilson, on me.  I think the only Czech writer I've previously read is Milan Kundera and I was excited to finally give Hrabal a try, having two other books by him on my to be read shelf - Too Loud A Solitude and Dancing Lessons For the Advanced in Age.  I've also seen the Czech film Closely Watched Trains that was based on his novel and shares some of the same youthful and sexual antics.

I Served the King of England follows many years in the life of Ditie, a young man from humble origins who works his way up from busboy to millionaire hotel owner and back to the ordinary, learning many life lessons along the way. It's a simple, basic plot but what makes this novel quite extraordinary and very enjoyable to read is Hrabal's sheer imaginative exuberance and excess of detail. The characters and situations that Ditie encounters are completely over the top but it doesn't matter; the scenes are fully and convincingly drawn out and played for both comic and poignant effect. Just suspend your disbelief and enjoy the narrative ride. Descriptions range from the simple image of stark white underwear discarded from hotel windows only to be caught on hooks wielded by his grandmother, to lavish, spectacular feasts involving stuffed camels and the Emperor of Ethiopia, to an imaginative hotel concept that becomes for Ditie not just a financial but a satisfyingly artistic success.  Memorable characters abound from a tyrant boss in a wheelchair, to the all-knowing head waiter who credits his success to having served the King of England, to Lise, the powerful German woman that Ditie marries just as the Nazis are coming to power. Believe in the unbelievable is a key theme of this novel where class, belonging and the need for acceptance from one's peers is a strong undercurrent. Hrabal suggests that the real richness of life is the beauty and wonder of the world not so much in nature, but in the accumulative human nature that we encounter with all of its crazy intricacies and eccentricities.  And Ditie only discovers this when he hits rock bottom doing hard labour repairing roads.  In his solitude comes understanding, restorative reflection and creativity:

And I said to myself that during the day I would look for the road to the village, but in the evening I would write, looking for the road back, and then walk back along it and shovel aside the snow that had covered my past, and so try, by writing, to ask myself about myself.
I loved the enthusiastic prose, the narrative rush, the cynicism, imagination and originality behind this novel.  It made me smile and count my blessings as corny as that may sound.  I'm looking forward to reading more of Hrabal's work.

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