cover image I Served the King of England

I Served the King of England

Bohumil Hrabal, Hrabal Bohumil. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt P, $17.95 (243pp) ISBN 978-0-15-145745-8

Written in the form of a memoir, this playful social satire follows the rise and fall of a diminutive Czech waiter while mirroring the political turmoil of recent Czech history. Gleefully chronicling the grossness and corruption of the 1920s, Hrabal makes Ditie's early life delightful reading. The mood turns abruptly sour when Ditie falls in love with a German gym teacher in the '30s and becomes equally enamoured of her Nazi ideaology. After the war, Ditie is sentenced to prison as a collaborator; then becomes a hotelier with profits made from selling rare stamps stolen from Jewish concentration camp victims. He hopes to curry favor with his former employers, but they disdainfully ignore him. By the end of the book, with the coming of communism, Ditie has lost everything; he is banished to the former Sudetenland, with only some farm animals as company. The book begins brilliantly, but Hrabal's depiction of post-WW II Czechoslovakia is unrealistically rosy, and Ditie's moral transformation is not entirely persuasive. But the novel is always witty, often wise, and sparkles in Wilson's beautiful translation. (Mar.)