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Czech Mates

I Served the King of England

by Bohumil Hrabal, translated by Paul Wilson
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 243 pp., $17.95

My First Loves

by Ivan Klíma, translated by Ewald Osers
Norton, 164 pp., $7.95 (paper)

Catapult: A Timetable of Rail, Sea, and Air Ways to Paradise

by Vladimír Páral, translated and with an introduction by William Harkins
Catbird Press/A Garrigue Book, 226 pp., $15.95

Sins for Father Knox

by Josef Skvorecky, translated by Kaca Polackova Henley
Norton, 268 pp., $17.95

Whereas George Orwell was down and out in Paris, Bohumil Hrabal’s narrator and hero, Ditie by name, is upwardly mobile in the hotel and restaurant world of Prague. Ditie loves his labors. In some respects his experiences resemble those of Thomas Mann’s Hochstapler Felix Krull, who did nicely for himself while working at the Hotel Saint James and Albany in Paris.

Though his story is picaresque in its episodic nature and its wanderings, Ditie is not a swindler or a picaro on the grand scale; he is merely ambitious, ambitious to be rich, and prepared to work devotedly in furtherance of this aim. His book is a fairy tale: a poor boy, mocked for his short stature, goes out into the world, succeeds here and suffers reverses there, has many adventures on the way, and at last achieves true happiness. It isn’t necessary to be big, you just have to feel big. Unlike most fairy tales, this one is suffused with irony, and not—in parts obviously not—suitable for children.

Ditie’s first job, as busboy at the Golden Prague Hotel, is to sell hot frankfurters at the railway station. He soon perceives that when frankfurters cost one crown eighty apiece, and the passenger gives you a twenty-crown bill or even a hundred, if you fumble about in your pockets looking for change, the odds are that the train will have moved off before you can hand the change over. It’s not your fault if you make a nice little profit. This pays for Ditie’s visits to an amiable establishment called Paradise’s, where the girls teach him skills that will come in handy later on. He also discovers that “money could buy you not just a beautiful girl, money could buy you poetry too.”

Moving to the Hotel Tichota, Ditie picks up more useful knowledge from the proprietor, a hugely fat man confined to a wheelchair, who nonetheless whizzes around the premises and is aware of what everyone is up to. Observation, in particular of merry orgies, confirms that, contrary to folklore, it is the rich who are happy, not the poor and honest. When rich people retire to the washroom to vomit during a banquet, it is a sign of good breeding. Suspected of conspiring to steal a gold statue of the Bambino di Praga, Ditie is sacked, but “I was always lucky in my bad luck.”

His next job is at the beautiful Hotel Paris, where he is taken up by the headwaiter, Mr. Skrivánek, a person who knows everything, who can virtually read minds, simply because once (he explains) he served the King of England. Old gentlemen hold voyeuristic sessions in the hotel, sipping champagne and studying connoisseur-like the folds and curves of a young female body; and it is left to Ditie to finish the job after they have left. Once a week, for those few minutes, he would feel “tall and handsome and curly-haired.”

But the great event at the Hotel Paris is a state banquet given for the Emperor of Ethiopia and his entourage, held there because only the hotel has sufficient gold cutlery for three hundred guests. The Emperor’s cooks prepare a native specialty: hard-boiled eggs and stuffing and fish are placed inside twenty half-roasted turkeys, the turkeys inside two antelopes (acquired from the zoo), the antelopes inside a barbecued camel, and then the whole is basted with mint leaves dipped in beer. The dish is so carved that in every portion there is a slice of camel and antelope and turkey and fish and stuffing and hard-boiled egg. Noticing that the Emperor has no wine, Ditie kneels to him and fills his glass, for which he is rewarded with a medal and a blue sash “for service rendered to the throne of the Emperor of Ethiopia.”

Ditie’s happiness is shattered when he is suspected of having stolen one of the gold spoons. He rushes off into the woods to hang himself, stumbles in the dark against the pendent body of someone who has already hanged himself, faints, and is rescued by the all-knowing headwaiter. The missing spoon has been found halfway down the drain of the kitchen sink. Unmistakably a fairy-tale denouement. But when he falls unpatriotically in love with a Sudeten German girl, Lise, he is fired in earnest.

This stands him in good stead when the German army arrives, and his next job is serving milk to young females and wine to young males at an establishment run by the Bureau for Racial Purity, a “breeding station” for a refined and noble human race, by means of “no-nonsense intercourse, as the old Teutons used to do it.” Ditie’s reputation there is as high as was Mr. Skrivánek’s in the Hotel Paris, perhaps higher, since to have served the Emperor of Ethiopia would probably outrank having served the King of England. Ditie is regrettably undersized, but he can claim a conceivably Teutonic grandfather, and at least has blond hair. Hence the Good Waiter Ditie is permitted to marry Lise, who is now an officer in the nursing corps and a high-ranking member of the party. “With a mighty thumping of rubber stamps I was given a marriage license, while Czech patriots, with the same thumping of the same rubber stamps, were sentenced to death.” The testing of his semen is related with what may be considered an appropriate lack of taste. Appropriate also, no doubt, is the fact that from the couple’s regulated and unenjoyable acts of “National Socialist intercourse” the only issue is a cretinous child christened Siegfried.

It is another instance of being lucky in his bad luck that Ditie should be arrested in error by the SS, beaten up, and thrown into prison just as the war is coming to an end. His battered face declares him an anti-Nazi fighter, although as an undeniable sexual collaborator he gets a six-months’ jail sentence.

Lise is killed in an air raid, but Ditie recovers the suitcase she has packed with valuable stamps, once Jewish property. With the proceeds he buys an abandoned quarry outside Prague, and builds himself a unique “landscaped” hotel there, visited by such celebrities as John Steinbeck (who tries unsuccessfully to buy it) and Maurice Chevalier. As he intended, he has become a millionaire. In 1948 the new regime confiscates the hotel, all property rights having devolved to the people, and there follows a hilarious episode in an easygoing internment camp (earlier a Catholic seminary) for former millionaires, who are supposed to serve one year for every million they have made, and who look down on Ditie as not a proper, prewar millionaire but a wartime profiteer. Hearing that the camp is to be shut down, the inmates arrange a last supper. The circle begins to close: Ditie puts on his tuxedo, and the medal and the blue sash, and waits on them, but there is no joy in it, and guests and guards alike end by gazing at a painting of the Last Supper and then kneeling in the chapel.

Facing a choice between going to prison and joining a labor brigade, Ditie takes up his last job, mending a remote road in the mountains that nobody uses. He settles in an abandoned inn, together with his friends or “guests,” a cat, a goat, and a horse, and meditates on death and eternity. The brook in which he washes his face tells him that years from now “somebody somewhere will wash his face in me,” just as someone somewhere will strike a match made from the phosphorus of his body. Whatever traces of irony still linger quickly fade away, and out of the book for good. First the fun and games, and then self-arraignment, repentance (not too strenuous), and spiritual rebirth.

To maintain the country road is to maintain his own weed-infested life, to open up his past, the past life which now “seemed to have happened to someone else.” Given strength by the Emperor’s medal, he sits down in the evenings to write out his story, this largely and surprisingly humorous European Bildungsroman or, as he puts it, “this story of how the unbelievable came true.”

Ivan Klíma’s My First Loves relates to much the same time-span as I Served the King of England, and the second of its four linked stories features a wise old violinist, formerly a waiter and a major-domo who once served the Austrian Emperor with a glass of wine at a banquet in Vienna. He tells the young narrator that people shouldn’t look down on those who are not ashamed to serve others, for which of them doesn’t serve? “I’ve always maintained that a man can do anything so long as he does it lovingly.” The remark is a gentle corrective to the boy’s egalitarian notions, but sentiments very similar could have come from Ditie.

The narrator—we have some authority for calling him Ivan—is given to speculating on the meaning of life, on God, and the soul, and immortality, but otherwise the stories are very different: sad, introspective, inconclusive, and above all steeped in uncertainty. In the first story, set during the German occupation, the keynote is sounded when the youthful narrator, who hopes for a future as a witness-bearer, a painter or a poet, asks the ghetto painter Maestro Speero, originally from Holland, why his drawings—of lines of tiny people wearing the Jewish star—are so very small. “Um sie besser zu verschlucken,” the painter seems to say: all the better to swallow them; or it could have been “verschicken,” to send, or “verschenken,” to give.

In the second story, “My Country,” set in the early postwar years, and portraying a “strange intermingling of different periods” in the behavior of the residents in a country inn, Ivan’s father, an engineer, voices the idealistic Communist vision of a future in which poverty and exploitation will be no more, heavy labor will be done by marvelous machines, the people will govern, and, since there is no reason for war, an age of universal peace and trust will dawn. A doctor contends that the only result of revolution will be that a different group of people become poor and a different group rich, and the promised paradise will turn out to be a fairy tale. The boy falls in puppy love with the doctor’s inviting wife, but only in the great writers he is reading at the time—Balzac, Stendhal, Maupassant—are love affairs actually consummated. Showing people and events through the eyes of youth, inquiring, half-understanding, sometimes mystified, this is the most engaging of the stories.

The war had dragged on through Ivan’s childhood “like some poisonous snake.” And no sooner has the adolescent narrator entered the promised land foreseen by his father than his father is arrested and charged with unbelievable crimes against the new social order in which he believes. “The Truth Game,” as its title suggests, is a sourer tale, although Ivan does at last get to make love. Vlasta, the girl in the case, claims a family history which even for that time and place seems extravagant in its woes: her father was executed by the Nazis for possessing an illegal transmitter; the new regime sent her stepfather to jail for some obscure reason; her mother drowned herself; Vlasta herself married a drunken saxophone player who used to beat her up. The family has had one hero, but he was on the wrong side: an uncle who emigrated to America, joined the navy, and was blown up by a mine in Korea. “I visualized my father lying in a cell somewhere while I was drifting about wine bars with a strange dolled-up divorcée,” a woman whose copious revelations didn’t add up, who was “covered in words like fish-scales.”

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