I may be wrong here, but I’m fairly confident that Jiří Menzel’s recent film of Bohumil Hrabal’s novel I Served the King of England is unlikely to find success beyond the borders of former Czechoslovakia (watch me eat my words a year or so from now when it sweeps the Oscars). Certainly I don’t see much reason why it should succeed, and the people I know who have seen it so far seem in more or less unanimous agreement. Sure, there are a couple of neat little quips, and most of it is beautifully filmed, since it is portrayed through the eyes of its amoral anti-hero Dítě, for whom the sole meaning of life is the consumption of beauty, frivolous, selfish indulgence. This though, in the eyes of many, is the film’s downfall, since it presents us with nothing but a superficial carnival and is ultimately unsatisfying and inconsequential.
So far I concur with the majority view, but have to diverge on the matter of whether Menzel is entirely to blame here. Hrabal is held in such esteem in this country that in the unlikely event that anyone Czech reads this page I may be lynched for the heresy I am about to commit, but I have to admit that in my years here Hrabal is a part of Czech culture that I simply have never understood. I am undoubtedly in a very small minority here, not only amongst Czechs but even amongst the ex-pats I know who have perhaps become more native than I am capable of, but I cannot lie, I frequently find Hrabal exasperating to the point of nausea. When all is said and done he is the creator of the tiresomely one-dimensional Dítě, and whilst it is clear that Dítě is not intended to be an entirely sympathetic character, a question is left hanging in my mind as to why quite so much time has to be wasted on him in book and film alike.
What is the point, for example, of the Bambino di Praga story? Are we supposed to be clutching our sides with laughter at this rambling, slapstick aside? As part of a Laurel and Hardy film such clownish antics might be mildly amusing, but within the context of a supposedly great novel it comes across merely as irrelevant, spewing verbal diarrhoea. Likewise the banquet of the Abyssinian emperor (Jah Rastafari!). Not only is there the ridiculous excess of the camel stuffed with antelope stuffed with turkey stuffed with fish etc., but also the half-drunken, “laughing and grinning” cooks and the emperor’s counselor, the “well known epicure” who “was so enraptured with the barbecued camel that he stood up and yelled with an expression of bliss on his face. But it tasted so delicious that not even that yell was enough, so he did what looked like a gymnastics routine, then started pounding his chest… Finally the counselor couldn't contain himself any longer and ran out of the hotel shouting and dancing and cheering and beating his chest...” My God man, give it a rest! (and that’s the abridged version). The only thing that made me laugh here was not the storytelling but the unintentionally hilarious political incorrectness in Hrabal’s monstrously patronising depiction of Africans as grinning golliwogs, which would tempt one to accuse him of racism were it not for the fact that his caricatures (to call them characters would be unduly flattering) of other races are equally buffoonish – the snooty Skřivánek, the absurdly corpulent Mr Walden, the bullying, oyster-gorging, pistol-firing general, Dítě’s Hitler-infatuated wife, plus of course Dítě himself.
Hrabal was evidently not a stupid man and he deliberately juxtaposed the vacuity of his anti-hero’s world view against much more serious matters, primarily the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia and Second World War. So there is a point here then, presumably that all this irresponsibility comes at a price. But tragedy is always kept at arm’s length, never really felt, remaining peripheral – in the midst of the catastrophe around him Dítě, who is after all the narrator, never comes close to taking anything seriously, and even when he himself becomes a victim of circumstance, when his wealth (the only thing he ever cares about, incidentally stolen from murdered Jews) is confiscated by the communists and he is thrown in prison he merely shrugs his shoulders and smirks - after all life is just a big joke, sometimes at our own expense. I am not denying that people like Dítě, even if so stereotypical as to stretch the imagination, may indeed exist, or that there is a Dítě, which translates as Child, in all of us, but surely it’s inevitable that if an entire novel is narrated through the eyes of so limited a character it is doomed to be repetitive, tedious and desperately limited itself. By falling so in love with his own silly prose Hrabal is in fact guilty of the same obscene self-indulgence Dítě is created for the purpose of lampooning. Too often Hrabal retreats into an infantile fairytale world in which every pub bore is held up as an undiscovered genius born into the wrong age, and his work becomes a sniggering ode to bawdiness and triviality, with the ultimate effect that it seems that not only his characters but Hrabal himself is mocking any kind of ideals.
To rub salt in the wound (fuck it, I’m already damned as far as the Czechs are concerned) I could compare Hrabal unfavourably with Kundera, adored by the foreign public whilst reviled amongst many Czechs unable to forgive him for abandoning them and writing in French (pretentious, moi?). Whilst both may come to pessimistic philosophical conclusions about our ultimate ignorance and powerlessness at the mercy of circumstance, Kundera in his best work provides some gravity to offset the unbearable lightness of being, creating more complex, believable characters (at least the male ones), injecting a sense of tragedy and realism, showing masterful understanding of human motivations whilst simultaneously spinning us a damn good yarn. Whereas what does Hrabal give us? Grotesque tomfoolery.
At this point you may be asking why the hell I went to see the film. Well, because I’ve tried, I really have. And perhaps I’m just too stupid to understand Hrabal, but despite my greatest efforts, and in the face of thoroughly lucid arguments to the contrary from people I genuinely respect, I still do not get it.