“I Served the King of England” by Bohumil Hrabal is a tragicomic novel, a first-person account by Dite, a teenage busboy starting his career in a rural hotel in Czechia. The plot progresses gradually as Dite becomes a waiter and than an owner of a hotel, eventually losing everything except wisdom.
The book is structured as a series of picturesque episodes demonstrating people whom Dite meets and situations he gets into during the pre-war period, Nazi occupation of the country and eventually under the communist regime. In this paper I am going to concentrate on one psychological aspect of the novel, namely on the idea of happiness as Dite sees it.
At first sight, Dite sees happiness in money and insists on his desire to become a millionaire, however, I will attempt to prove that the actual incentive for Dite’s conduct is desire of respect and recognition. He does not want the entire world to admire him, rather striving to respect of the people whom he himself respects. It is not easy to say whether Dite eventually achieved his purpose, but at the end he at least comes to reconciliation with the surrounding world. In order to prove this point I will refer to the particular parts of the texts as well as to the general plot and spirit of the book.
Dite obviously suffers from inferiority complex. He is adulterate, poor and short, so, suffering from all the disadvantages of such situation, he decides to become rich and respected. However, his conduct is often impulsive and determined by his up-to-minute desires. The book can be viewed as a confession of an aged man who analyses his life journey.
The language of the book progresses from a naïve story-telling by a young boy to a considered narrative depicted by older Dite. His priorities can be clearly indicated in every stage of his life. Dite hardly thinks of happiness as itself, for most of his life he rather strives to tread in the steps of the people he meets and whom he deems to be successful. He is “amazed at how rich people could sit around for the whole evening talking about how just outside the town was a footbridge and right beside the footbridge, thirty years back there was a popular tree and they they’d really get going”. He starts to realize the need of happiness as such at the very late stage of his life, while all his previous existence is a mimicry.
Dite’s love for money reveals already in the first scenes of the book. As a busboy he swindles money out of his customers and pretends to be an orphan to get more cash from compassionate passengers on the railroad station. At that he seems to be a cynical person with little moral principles. However, he also has no good example before his eyes, as he has to communicate with drunken customers, heartless master of the hotel and roguish colleagues. So, very early he comes to idea that money rules the world, and in order to be recognized one needs to be rich. He is therefore very proud of “having money of my own, a couple of hundred a month, and once I even got handed a thousand-crown note”. In this period of Ditie’s life money is an opportunity of self-esteem for him.
Very soon it can be observed that money as itself is not a purpose for Dite. He has little idea of how capitals are made and he is not interested in power given by money. What he wants is a luxurious life like that of which he hears from his older pals and like that he finds in Prague. The lavish and careless lifestyle of the pre-war Czech capital becomes his ideal, and he merely wants to enjoy this life in a company of the same playboys. He “wanted to be surrounded by millionaires”.
Being a rather fussy person, Dite becomes lofty when he has an opportunity to remind that “he is a waiter who served the King of England”. It was not actually the King of England, but an emperor of Ethiopia whom Dite served, but he does not lose an opportunity to brag a little, because this is a moment of his greatest glory.
This moment is so important, that Hrabal used it as a name of the book. The narrative is told in the name of old and wise Dite, who, perhaps, realizes the meaninglessness of his claim, so the name is a sharp self-irony. On the other hand, Dite really has nothing more to boast, because serving the King was a point if his highest social recognition, which was so important for young Dite and which is so unimportant for older Dite.
Whether consciously or not, Dite attempts to imitate the habits of his neighborhood, and works hard to make enough money to visit a local bordello, of which he hears so much. Further throughout the story relationship with women and sexual intercourses remain to be a strong incentive for him, although his marriage ends with tragedy and disgrace, bringing his to jail, social condemnation and exile.
Women are a kind of fatal temptation for Dite, another tool for his self-affirmation and another source of his disappointment. Hrabal uses the story of Dite’s relationships with women as a notable symbol of hic character’s frustration. Dite has a strong desire for women, although this is also rather an attempt to be similar to someone, than his natural need.
As an teenage boy he is kin on having at least some woman, yet intercourses with local prostitutes do not satisfy him. Later in Prague he seems to be close to the goal of his life as he marries Lise and makes plans to open his own hotel. This dream would be innocent, in case Lise was not a German activist, and the plot would not develop right before and right after the Munich treaty. German occupation is a turning point in Dite’s life. This is actually the period when his awakening begins. Humiliation by the German authorities, work in the Nazi research institute, and finally Lise’s death during the air raid makes Dite see an another kind of example in the people around him. He really never “finds the head”, and it is somehow his own head.
Dite is in fact a “weathercock”. He hardly cares of the fact that he collaborates with the occupants of his homeland. For him the Germans are just those who are currently on top, and another opportunity to become successful under a new regime. And if he has to prove that he is a “pure Aryan breed”, and if he has to work on production of even better “Aryan breed”, and if he is able to make money by selling the precious things confiscated from murdered Jews, so why not?
Further events are a sort of punishment for his vagrancies. He loses his wife, he loses hope for luxurious and easy-going life, and he loses even those crumbs of social recognition which he previously enjoyed. Dite’s entire world is ruined, and there is no hope on rebirth. At the second part of the novel Dite becomes that what he was at the beginning – nothing. The illusions of happiness dispel bringing him to the beginning of a new way.
Perhaps the entire story is Dite’s attempt of self-analysis. He revisits the situations of his life, trying to imagine how he would have acted in case he would have acted differently. There is no longer opportunity for changing those circumstances, and there is no way back, so the only resort he can afford is fatalistic wisdom in his new calm life in a frontier village, far from all what he previously so estimated.
Eventually, he does become a millionaire, at least the name of the book’s last chapter hints this. Yet it is an another kind of richness. His material wealth at the end is a small house, a cat and a goat, but he feels himself richer than he could ever imagine. “The unbelievable that came true stayed with me, and I believed in the unbelievable, in the star that had followed me through life, and with its gleam constantly before my eyes I began to believe in it more and more…Now that I had been brought to my knees, I realized that my star was brighter than ever, that only now would I be able to see its true brightness, because my eyes had been weakened by everything I had lived through, weakened so that they could see more and know more.”
It is in this passage where the real nature of happiness in Dite’s view reveals. Having no idea of actual happiness he tries many surrogates, before all of them are ruined and he can smile ironically looking back at his life of a “person who served the King of England” and here he can just take compassion on that older Dite, who spared his life hunting for delusive mirages. He was just to eager to become successful, too eager to be rich, too eager to be pleased, while happiness was something different.
1. Hrabal, Bohumil. I Served the King of England. Vintage, 1990.