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…

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