I SERVED THE KING OF ENGLAND by bohumil hrabal


reminded me of walser — maybe a more worldy walser. as if instead of retreating to the madhouse, hrabal was sentenced to the purgatory of the diplomatic corps — forced propriety despite the absurd or horrific swirls of history around him. but, like walser, he recognizes the poetic gesture… poetic or romantic despite or because of the old world sexism and classism rampant (and rampant still) just before the second world war, the ripened-to-rot but still shiny weimar-type decadence… without mentioning it to spoil it, the first chapter has one of the more romantic scenes i’ve read in many a year.

the movement from charming and bawdy to dark satire and political farce to apocalyptic dream and finally into prayerful meditation — all that transition done quietly, even feigning modesty, yet this quiet hiding a great ambition. the transitions’ build-up and execution reflective of not only the change of an individual but of nation-states.

here’s a scene to wet yer whistle:

“I saw Zdenëk, the headwaiter at the Hotel Tichota, who enjoyed having a good time so much when he was off work that to get it he’d spend all the money he had with him, which was always several thousand. Then I saw his uncle, a military bandmaster now retired, who split wood on his little plot of land in the forest where he had a cottage overgrown with flowers and wild vines. This uncle had been a bandmaster at the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and still wore his uniform when he split wood, because he had written two polkas and several waltzes that still got played all the time, although no one remembered who the composer was and everyone thought he’d died a long time ago. Zdenëk and I, as we were riding along in a rented buggy on one of our days off, heard the sound of a military brass band playing one of his uncle’s waltzes, and Zdenëk stood up and signaled the driver to stop, then went over to the band and had a little talk with the bandmaster. He offered to give him all the money he had, four thousand crowns, for the soldiers to buy themselves beer, if they would do what he asked. Buses were waiting, and the whole band was getting ready to climb aboard to go to a band tattoo, so we left the buggy there and got on the first bus with them. After an hour’s drive we stopped in a forest, and soon a hundred and twenty uniformed musicians with their shiny instruments were advancing slowly down a road through the woods. Then they turned onto a footpath lined with thick bushes and pine trees that towered overhead, and Zdenëk signaled them to stop and slipped through some loose planks in a fence, disappeared into the bushes for a few moments, then came back and told them his plan. When he gave the sign, the soldiers climbed one by one through the hole in the fence into the bushes while Zdenëk, like a soldier at the front, directed them to take positions around the tiny house. They could hear the sound of an ax striking wood, and the entire band silently surrounded the chopping block and an old man in an ancient Austrian bandleader’s uniform. When Zdenëk gave the signal, the bandmaster flung his golden ceremonial baton in the air, gave a loud command, and out of the bushes rose a glistening array of brass instruments and the band began to play a clamorous polka by Zdenëk’s uncle. The old bandleader stood transfixed over the piece of wood he had just split, while the band moved forward a couple of steps, still up to their waists in pine and oak shrubs. Only the bandmaster stood in the greenery up to his knees, swinging his golden baton while the band played the polka and their instruments flashed in the sunlight. The old bandleader slowly looked around with a heavenly expression on his face, and when they finished the polka the band started right in on one of his concert waltzes, and the old bandleader sat down, put his ax across his knees, and began to cry. The bandmaster came up and touched his shoulder, the old man looked up, and the bandmaster handed him the golden baton. Now the old man got to his feet and, as he told us afterward, he thought he’d died and gone to heaven with a military band all around him, and he thought they must play military music in heaven and that God Himself was conducting the band and was now turning His own baton over to him. So the old man conducted his own pieces, and when he’d finished, Zdenëk stepped out of the bushes, shook hands with his uncle, and wished him good health. Half an hour later the band climbed back into their buses and as they were driving away they played Zdenëk a farewell ceremonial fanfare. Zdenëk stood there filled with emotion and bowed and thanked them, and finally the buses, and with them the fanfares, faded down the road through the woods, lashed by beech branches and shrubs” (159-61).

find it at the library or from the publisher or pick it up from an independent bookstore.



three profiles on the bohemian’s bohemian:

james wood at the london review of books.

adam thirwell at the guardian.

mats larsson at Art Bin.

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