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Bohumil Hrabal: Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále (I Served the King of England)

It’s not even vaguely a novel but a short story. However, it is such a fascinating piece of Hrabaliana that it is worth including. The narrator – unnamed though we learn at the end that the surname of one of his grandfathers was Ditie – is a very small waiter. At the beginning of the story he has lost his job in the Hotel Tichota because of a mix-up pertaining to the Infant Jesus of Prague but manages to get a job in the Hotel Paris almost immediately. In good Hrabal fashion, we learn of people associated with the Tichota, who are involved in particularly bloody and violent crimes – Hrabal does not spare us the details. But things are better at the Hotel Paris. The head waiter has once served the King of England, an explanation he uses to explain why he always wins the bet he has with our narrator about what new customers will order.

But, as in his other writings, it is Hrabal’s wonderful humour, coupled with a nice dose of reality and the inevitable Schadenfreude, that makes this story so funny. We have the story of the waiter who was miraculously able to balance numerous plates on a tray, on his arms and in his hands, all without dropping them. Inevitably, one day, a customer sneezed and two of the plates fell. The waiter was so distressed that he threw the remaining plates on the floor and stormed out, returning only to try and kill himself by pulling a cupboard containing the restaurant glasses on top of himself. Up to this point, our narrator had been limited to serving beer but the arrest of this waiter led to the narrator’s promotion to full waiter. We learn about how he served the local prostitutes and how he dressed himself so smartly, no-one recognised him. Above all, we learn how he was able to serve the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, when a dinner was served with the Emperor and 350 people, involving mainly delicacies, including a full-sized, stuffed camel and for which he received a medal from the Emperor. We also learn how he supported a German woman when she was abused by the Czech populace, prior to the German invasion and what his reward was after the invasion (yes, it was sex, with the usual Hrabal embellishments). It’s a wonderful story, witty, unpredictable and full of Hrabalian insights. And it reads as though it should be a novel.

Publishing history

First published by Petlice in 1971
First published in English by Vintage International in 1990
Translated by Paul Wilson