Bohumil Hrabal: Comic Grotesque of Simpletons

Comic Fatalists in the post-war years of those buffer countries betwixt Europe and Russia produced writers forced into the fantastic or macabre: parable, allegory, and satire – forms and styles both baroque and symbolist to get around the ideological censors of both the Left and Right.

CaptureEven in the earlier Great War (WWI) one remembers The Good Soldier Schweik of Jaroslav Hasek a comedic satire on war and civilization:

A great epoch calls for great men. There are modest unrecognized heroes, without Napoleon’s glory or his record of achievements. An analysis of their characters would overshadow even the glory of Alexander the Great. To-day, in the streets of Prague, you can come across a man who himself does not realise what his significance is in the history of the great new epoch. Modestly he goes his way, troubling nobody, nor is he himself troubled by journalists applying to him for an interview. If you were to ask him his name, he would answer in a simple and modest tone of voice: “I am Schweik.”

And this quiet, unassuming, shabbily dressed man is actually the good old soldier Schweik; that heroic, dauntless man who was the talk of all citizens in the Kingdom of Bohemia when they were under Austrian rule, and whose glory will not pass away even now that we have a republic.

I am very fond of the good soldier Schweik, and in presenting an account of his adventures during the World War, I am convinced that you will all sympathize with this modest, unrecognised hero. He did not set fire to the temple of the goddess at Ephesus, like that fool of a Herostrate, merely in order to get his name into the newspapers and the school reading books.

And that, in itself, is enough.

—Jaroslav Hasek, The Good Soldier Svejk


In the post-war fantastic the work of Bohumil Hrabal seems to have followed that groove, producing both novels and stories in which the a dark humor aligned with intelligent wit and satire pervade. Hrabal wrote in an expressive, highly visual style. He affected the use of long sentences; his works Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age (1964) and Vita Nuova (1987) consist entirely of one single sentence. Political quandaries and the accompanying moral ambiguities are recurrent themes in his works. Many of Hrabal’s characters are portrayed as “wise fools” — simpletons with occasional inadvertently profound thoughts — who are also given to coarse humour, lewdness, and a determination to survive and enjoy life despite harsh circumstances they found themselves in.

Much of the impact of Hrabal’s writing derives from his juxtaposition of the beauty and cruelty found in everyday life. Vivid depictions of pain human beings casually inflict on animals (as in the scene where families of mice are caught in a paper compactor) symbolise the pervasiveness of cruelty among human beings. His characterisations also can be comic, giving his prose a baroque or mediaeval tinge.

CaptureOne of his best known works I Served the King of England is probably the place to start with Hrabal. This tragi-comedy follows the misadventures of a simple but hugely ambitious waiter in pre-World War II Prague, who rises to wealth only to lose everything with the onset of Communism, Bohumil Hrabal takes us on a tremendously funny and satirical trip through 20th-century Czechoslovakia. It tells the tale of Ditie, a hugely ambitious but simple waiter in a deluxe Prague hotel in the years before World War II. Ditie is called upon to serve not the King of England, but Haile Selassie. It is one of the great moments in his life. Eventually, he falls in love with a Nazi woman athlete as the Germans are invading Czechoslovakia. After the war, through the sale of valuable stamps confiscated from the Jews, he reaches the heights of his ambition, building a hotel. He becomes a millionaire, but with the institution of communism, he loses everything and is sent to inspect mountain roads. Living in dreary circumstances, Ditie comes to terms with the inevitability of his death, and with his place in history.

As Valerie Stivers (November 16, 2018) tells us in Cooking with Bohumil Hrabal:

In this context, the absurdist title, I Served the King of England, takes on a greater resonance. Hrabal has too light of a touch to get truly political, but hidden in this book there are questions: Who have the little men served, and how? When your masters are Nazis, the stakes are unbearably high—to what extent can anyone be held accountable? Ditie is ignorant, but he’s also in the thick of it. During the scene on the hay between the president and the Frenchwoman, Ditie observes: “None of us watched but all of us were excited … We felt that it was happening to us.” If he later fails to serve the communists, it’s only because they’re too dreary for him.

Hrabal has sympathy for the common man, and the reader has sympathy for Ditie, but he cannot be exonerated. He ends up, finally, self-reflective, destitute, and alone in a cabin in the woods, where he watches himself in mirrors that “held the imprints of the Germans who had looked into them, who had departed years ago leaving their smell behind them.” He’s not chastened, but the reader is. Magic realism is but a slim reed, and I think Hrabal knew it.

Hrabal wasn’t able to publish I Served the King of England in the Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia of the seventies, given the book’s dark view of authority and humanity (that this darkness is concealed by lightness is just one of the ways the book is so brilliant). The book began circulation as samizdat (the Russian term for self-published) in 1971, joining the likes of work by Solzhenitsyn, Brodsky, and Dovlatov. It was officially published only in 1983 when Hrabal made some concessions to the communist authorities for the privilege. In its extraordinary inventiveness of tone, I Served the King of England reminds me of the Russian writer Andrei Platonov, who felt compelled to invent an entire new syntax to speak his truths under a repressive regime.

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