(Author: Bohumil Hrabal) + (Year: 1971) + (Goodreads)
(Around the World: Czech Republic)
I bought this book during my trip to Prague as part of my project to get a book or two in each new country I visit. Now, this is not my first Czech book, but I wanted to try a new Czech author nevertheless.
In my opinion, one of the best things about the book was actually the foreword. Unfortunately, I don’t have the book right now, so I can’t mention the author of the foreword, but they wrote a very informative, interesting and engaging analysis of both “I Served the King of England“, and Hrabal’s literature in general. Not knowing the author, it really helped me see some tendencies in his writing and in the themes he uses.
The book itself was not exactly to my liking. The story was rather interesting, but the atmosphere was very tight and suffocating. The main character was such a narrow-minded little man that his world was equally as small and claustrophobic. His experiences, even the ones he was most proud of and most happy about, always had a pinch of wrongness and just this general feeling about something dirty and repulsive happening. For example, as you can see in the cover of the book, he liked to put flowers in the pubic hair of the women he slept with. But those women were either prostitutes, or his Nazi-to-the-bone wife, and there was something very unpleasant and private about reading about his joy from this action.
I feel like this is something that often happens in European literature, and especially that of the ex-Communist countries. While in American literature even murder and gore are kind of shiny in description, in European literature, there is this sense of the author wanting to create shock in the reader through showing the reality in the most vulgar way possible. It is a thing I have always noticed in in every piece of art in Bulgaria – be it literature, movies, paintings, there is always sex. But it is not appealing, erotic sex. It’s always the kind of description of sex which makes you feel uncomfortable and in need of a hot shower and a lot of scrubbing.
This is how I felt while reading this book. And spoiler alert for my next Czech book – The Joke, – same thing there.
One thing which was mentioned in the foreword of the book which I couldn’t help but notice later on, was the fact that the character is always in need of proving himself and he is in a desperate need of attention and achieving every physical element of happiness and obtaining every material proof of success. While in character he is a spineless worm, in aspiration, he wants, and even briefly manages, to be rich and famous.
Setting everything about the story aside, Hrabal, undeniably, has a very good writing style. The descriptions he uses are very poetical and thought through. He guides the reader into his world and helps him see everything through exactly the right prism.
“I knew for certain that this girl could never be happy, but that her life would be sadly beautiful, and that life with her would be both an agony and a fulfillment for a man.”