Ditie, the hero of Bohumil Hrabal’s (1914–1997) I Served the King of England, begins his adventures as a “tiny busboy” under the chapter heading “A Glass of Grenadine.” He is a small man, common, filled with naive enthusiasms, a stealer of change who falls in love with prostitutes and decorates their bodies with flowers. The term picaresque seems made for him. His adventures start outside Prague in the early part of the twentieth century and, over their course, he becomes a waiter, then the owner of a hotel, somehow growing up without denting his innocence.
What he does learn, with trademark exuberance, is the ways of the wealthy and powerful people who come through his doors. He watches a boss knock the chef down for putting caraway seeds in the médaillon de veau aux champignons. He waits on a general who drinks Germany’s Henkell Trocken sparkling wine and eats “oysters and dishes of shrimp and lobster,” simultaneously stuffing himself and “sputter[ing] in disgust.” The president of the country displays equally inexplicable behavior, hiding in a children’s playhouse in the hotel’s yard with a Frenchwoman. The couple have sex on a “mound of hay” and order a twee faux-pastoral snack—“a crystal jug full of cool cream, a loaf of fresh bread, and a small lump of butter wrapped in vine leaves.” Ditie observes, “I had always thought that a President didn’t do things like this, and that it wasn’t right for a President to do things like this, and yet here he was just like the other rich people.”
Ditie doesn’t serve the titular king of England (the highest possible honor, which befalls a waiter friend of his), but in a scene of culminating absurdity, he waits on a table while local officials fete the king of Ethiopia with a grotesque turducken made of a camel, two antelopes, twenty turkeys, fish, and “hundreds of hard-boiled eggs to fill in the empty spaces.” The meal is consumed with Zernoseky riesling, to moans of pleasure from the guests. Read More