184 I Served the King of England, Bohumil Hrabal (trans. Paul Wilson)

I read this strange comedic novel on the plane to and while in Budapest, Bratislava, and Prague. Set in that area of the world starting right after World War I, the narrator is a young man from the country who finds a job as a waiter at a hotel restaurant and, over time, slowly rises through the ranks and earns enough money to open his own. But that synopsis does little justice to the vicissitudes of this plot, which says as much about the Czech outlook on both life and the fact their country was caught in the middle of both of the major wars of the 20th century. At one point, the narrator fancies, and catches the fancy of, a young German woman, and they proceed to get married, but this is right before World War II, and she’s a Nazi sympathizer, and because he has always been poor and short, he basically agrees with it. And then it turns darkly funny and even uglier, as his neighbors react to him and he reacts to his wife’s German friends.

The style in which this is written is in one long narrative with extremely few paragraph breaks. As it is in the first person, it seems breathless, and it’s both hard to fathom as well as put away. The translator in his notes says that people believed this book to be untranslatable, likely for this very breathless nature of the prose, but Paul Wilson does an admirable job of capturing the spirit of it.

I once took a course on Eastern Europe history between the wars and one of the books that we were assigned was The Good Soldier Shweik, also a Czech work. The two make a complementary pair, focused on different parts of the experience, but both very grounded in the fatalist nature of the Czech souls of the time, determined to persevere, but resigned to the fact that this will go on.

[Finished October 2018]

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First Impressions by Glen Engel-Cox is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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