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'I Served the King of England' was written in 1971, it's original Czech title being 'Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále'. The book was not officially published in Czechoslovakia at the time as it was deemed unsuitable by the authorities, it is now considered something of a classic.
My Czech is limited to about 5 words, so I have read (and am reviewing) the English translation by Paul Wilson, published in 1989.
The author, Bohumil Hrabal, was born in the Moravia region of what is now the Czech Republic in 1914. He lived most of his life in Prague and wrote over 30 books there. He died in 1997.
A little about the story
The book is written from the perspective of the main character, Ditie, who we initially find working at the Golden Prague Hotel as a waiter. During the early parts of the book we hear of his expereiences as he matures and meets various characters who influence his future.
Ditie's life lessons continue as he advances between different hotels, at one he comes under the influence of the head waiter, who seems to know everything about the behaviour of people around the hotel's restaurant, an ability he explains with the simple claim that he once served the King of England.
Ditie is able to make his own similar claim later when the visiting Emperor of Ethiopia bestows an award upon him, something he retains pride in throughout the story.
The book is set in the time of the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, something that has a large effect on Ditie's life. He falls in love with a German woman before the occupation begins and chooses to stick with her, despite what happens to his country as the story unfolds. He leaves for the German mountains where the Germans are running a bizarre breeding town and later marries his love. Ditie serves the women in the strange town whilst his wife travels. She returns from Poland with some valuable stamps, confiscated from Jews there.
Ditie goes it alone and uses the stolen wealth to open his own hotel, fulfilling his personal dream. This is taken away from him as the book continues and his bizarre tale continues.
I've not included a huge amount of detail here, I think this is an excellent book and I wouldn't want to know the entire story before reading it! I can't comment on the book's historical accuracy, it is interesting that it is set at an important time in the country's history but I am aware that it is fiction after all.
I am told that the translation does lose some of the effect of the writers style, but that the story does translate well. I'm sure that's expected with many translations. It is nevertheless a fantastic read and I recommend it.
I found that as the story progressed it became more compelling and increasingly difficult to put down. It won't leave you feeling depressed or unhappy as you may expect from a book set in a turbulent time. The way it is written from the main characters perspective gives it a nice personal feeling.
In 2006 a Czech movie was released based on the book, with a few changes to the story.
The book is currently available from amazon for £5.99.