The Resilient Czech Spirit, on Display in Bohumil Hrabal's "Closely Observed Trains" and "I Served the King of England"
Bohumil Hrabal was born in 1915, and lived through some of the most tumultuous years of Czech history. Hrabal grew up in the time of the First Republic, when literature moved away from nationalism to a more aesthetic view. In this frame, Hrabal likely grew up reading Karel Čapek, Jaroslav Hašek and Vladislav Vančura.
Although he finished a degree in law at Charles University during the beginning of World War II, Hrabal was never allowed to practice. Later, as the Communists took power, Hrabal’s books were not allowed to be published, and so they remained underground in the literature world until after the Velvet Revolution in 1989. This is the setting of Hrabal’s world, and therefore it is also the setting of two of his most famous novels: Closely Observed Trains and I Served the King of England. The main character of each book is different, yet strangely similar in their symbolic representation of the Czech Nation and People. Neither is seeking what they eventually find: the hero, the individual, and the Czech Spirit.Structurally, Closely Observed Trains and I Served the King of England are very different. Closely Observed Trains is a novella, a glimpse into the last part of Miloš Hrma's life, which began as a young train apprentice who slit his wrists because of his "ejaculation praecox." On the other hand, I Served the King of England is an epic, a journey through the life of the little Waiter Ditie, whose main aim in life is to become a millionaire.
The characters themselves have a very basic carnal nature, with a magical realist attitude. The humanistic elements of their adolescence, including their desire to discover sex and money, allow the reader to become the characters. However the characters actions and reactions are so extreme, that the reader is still anchored in the reality of the world.
For example, Miloš Hrma is unable to hold his erection while he is trying to have sex with his girlfriend for the first time. This humanistic experience becomes warped when we learn that this is the reason he slit his wrists. On the other hand, Ditie garnishes the naked lap of a prostitute, who immediately falls in love with him for such a tender act. The said prostitute comes to the restaurant where Ditie works to bring him back his money and asks him to come again because she loves him. They reality of a boy going to a prostitute is relatable, but beautiful prostitutes don’t fall in love with short, young waiters.
Along with Hrabal’s magical realist flare, his characters’ names are very paronomastic, giving the novels an almost parabolic effect. Hrabal’s paronomasia is usually lost to non-Czech readers because of the translation process, but its importance to understand the novels is still critical.
The most obvious paronomastic name is the protagonist of I Served the King of England, Ditie, which means child in Czech. The character Ditie is not only physically small like a child, but his ambitions and goals are childish. Ditie is ashamed of his name, until it allows him to marry Lise, a German, by ‘verifying’ his Aryan ancestry. He childishly thinks that the Germans will respect him more than the Czech saying, “ Now I was Herr Ditie, and for the Germans there was no child in my name, and I bet the word reminded them of something completely different, or maybe they couldn’t connect it to anything at all in German.” (Hrabal 135). He quickly finds out that his name has nothing to do with how he is treated, “ I was still just a runty busboy as far as they were concerned, a Czech pipsqueak, a pygmy.”(Hrabal 142). Even though they do not understand the meaning of his name he is still thought of as a child.
Another important paronomastic name is Mr.Skřivánek from I Served the King of England. In Czech, the word skřivan means lark, fitting for the character that served the king of England. The headwaiter Skřivánek who sees everything, like a lark flying above the restaurant with the ability to see right into the very minds of its patrons.
While Ditie and Skřivánek can be readily interpreted as having paronomastic roots, Zdenĕk, the headwaiter from the Hotel Trichota who becomes a main player in the Communist party, only contains traces of a premeditated meaning. If examined closely Zdenĕk resembles the words zděný and zedník or zednický. Zděný, zedník or zednický mean brick, bricklayer and bricklayer’s respectively. This is a reasonable association, with the brick and bricklayer conjuring up the image of the Communist ideal of the Worker. However it is also ironic as Zdenĕk was never a Worker, but a political figure that only dictated the masses to be bricklayers while he led a privileged life. The irony continues as Ditie’s last job mandated by the Communists is as a Worker, fixing and maintaining roads in the country. Although this association might seem distant, it is also important to note that Zdenĕk is one of the few male characters actually referred to by his first name, rather than his last.
Hrabal’s use of paronomastic names can also be seen in Closely Observed Trains. As with I Served the King of England the protagonist, Miloš Hrma has the most interesting paronomastic name. Miloš can be associated with several Czech words, milost, meaning mercy, compassion, pardon and reprieve, is the closest spelling wise, although probably not the closest in meaning when considering his second name, Hrma. The Czech word hrma means mons pubis. Understanding the meaning of hrma allows for a better interpretation of the intended paronomasia of the name Miloš. Instead of milost a better interpretation for the lexeme of Miloš would be milostný, meaning love, sexual and romantic. This interpretation is fully applicable to the character of Miloš. Miloš is more interested in losing his virginity than in the German occupation of his country. When he was taken on to one of the German trains as punishment, he reminisces about his unsuccessful sexual encounter with his girlfriend, Masha, rather than whether the Germans will kill him.
Another important character with a paronomastic name is Dispatcher Hubička. Hubička literally means kiss in Czech. Such a fitting image for Dispatcher Hubička who printed train stamps all over Virginia Svatá’s bare behind. Virginia Svatá, the telographist who allowed Hubička to print those stamps on her backside, also has a meaningful name. The name Virginia, denoting virginity and purity and Svatá meaning saint, is ironical because the only purpose Virginia serves in the novel is as a symbol of the carnal desire.
Both novels contain an idealized character, someone that the protagonist looks up to and admires. For Ditie this is Skřivánek, the headwaiter at the Hotel Paris. Ditie describes Skřivánek as the following:
"He was class itself, a real movie actor born to the tuxedo…and when I stood behind the headwaiter, who had curly gray hair that looked as though a hairdresser had done it, I could also see in the mirror that all I really wanted was to work right here at this station with this headwaiter, who radiated serenity, who knew everything there was to know.".( Hrabal 88).
When Ditie asks Skřivánek how he knows everything he always replies, "Because I Served the King of England". Skřivánek takes a liking to Ditie while training him and explains to him how to be a good headwaiter. In the beginning of Ditie's time at the Hotel Paris, Skřivánek's approval is vital to Ditie. He tells of an incident where after having the honor of Serving the Emperor of Ethiopia, a little gold spoon is missing and Ditie is the suspected culprit. Ditie gets in a cab, with the intention of hanging himself because,
"When I'd gone through the whole thing again in my head and come to the conclusion that the headwaiter didn't like me anymore, I decided I couldn't go on living. If it has been over a girl I'd have said, There's more than one flower under the sun, but this was a headwaiter who had served the King of England and who believed I could have stolen the little spoon."(Hrabal 117).
This spoon is found and Ditie begins to be trusted by Skřivánek, until Ditie starts dating Lise, a German girl. Suddenly Skřivánek stops trusting him, because “ I was a German sympathizer and, what was worse a Sokol who was going out with a German Gym teacher.”(Hrabal 125). He is fired and cannot get work anywhere because of his reputation as a German sympathizer. His opinion of Skřivánek changes overnight, “ and he looked at me as though I wasn’t there, as though he had never served the King of England and I had never served the Emperor of Ethiopia. But I didn’t care now, because I could see that the Czechs were being unjust to the Germans…”(Hrabal 123). Ditie continues, “here in the Prague of the Sokols, I could see with my own eyes what was happening to those poor Germans, and it confirmed everything they said about why the Sudetenland had to be taken back.”(Hrabal 124).
As Ditie sees Skřivánek for the last time, we see Skřivánek morph into the Czech nation: "I told him, You may have served the King of England but it hasn't done you any good."(Hrabal 126). And just as Skřivánek served the King of England so Czechoslovakia had been an ally to England, and just as Serving the King of England did nothing for Skřivánek, so being an ally did nothing for Czechoslovakia as the English Prime Minister Chamberlain gave away the Sudetenland with the infamous words, “ How horrible, it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas- masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing!.”
Just as Ditie idolized Skřivánek in I Served the King of England, so Miloš in Closely Observed Trains idolizes Hubička saying, "Dispatcher Hubička had always been my ideal."(Hrabal 55). The first encounter with Hubička is a story Miloš tells to the station master. Miloš tells the station master about how Hubička had seduced a lady right in another station master's office, and in the process tore the oilcloth couch. Upon hearing this story, Mr. Lánský starts reminiscing about Hubička's career, "A fellow who could have been a station-master a good ten years ago… and he still hasn't gotten a single star. As fast as they consider promoting him, he comes up with some swishness"(Hrabal 24). Despite all of these seemingly unattractive characteristics, Miloš still idolizes him.
In fact at the hearing about Hubička and the stamps on Virginia's behind, Miloš makes it seem like everyone secretly idolized Hubička saying, "and I felt that Traffic Chief and Councilor Zednicek, yes, the pair of these officials, would have been only too pleased with to do to Virginia exactly the same thing Mr. Hubička had done, only they were too much afraid; the only one who was never afraid of anything was Dispatcher Hubička." (Hrabal 55). With this description of Hubička it is no surprise that it is he who conceives of the idea to bomb the German supply train.
Although Hubička is this sexually driven character, there is also another dimension of him. After Miloš is abducted by the S.S men because a train was a half an hour late Hubička says, "'Miloš,' said Mr. Hubička , turning to me and taking me by the chin, ' that affair with that S.S machine… I'll never forget that. You took that in my place.'"(Hrabal 49). The emotion and the intimacy in this statement is something hitherto not experienced in the novel. Hubička genuinely cares about Miloš, while Miloš doesn't seem to have matured enough to achieve that height of emotion.
The protagonists of both novels are obviously the most interesting and most meaningful characters. They provide a window into the lives of the people a venue for the representation of the Czech people and state during those tumultuous years.
Ditie’s character development can be divided into two parts. The first one is from the beginning of his narrative until the time that he goes to the mountain to repair the roads and the second is from the time he arrives at the mountain inn until the end. In the first part of I Served the King of England, Ditie is portrayed as a simpleton. In his early days as a bus boy he discovers sex and says “ at last I’d found a beautiful and noble aim”(Hrabal 9). He is amazed by the oddest things, like the suit making company that takes your measurements and then makes a balloon of your torso so that the suit fits ‘like a glove’ and you never have to go for a live fitting.
The first part of his character seems void of emotion. For example when he cannot find his wife after the air raid;
"It wasn't until the third day that I came across her shoes. Slowly-I freed my Lise from the pile of rubble and dust,and when I uncovered half her body I saw that she was curled into a ball to protect the little suitcase…First I carefully hid it, then I dug out the rest of her, all but her head. The blast had taken her head off, and we spent two days looking for it. I took the little suitcase and without saying goodbye to anyone walked away…because though I had dug up the whole courtyard, I never found the head.”( Hrabal 172-173).
Ditie shows no emotion over the loss of his wife, that she died trying to protect that little suitcase with all of those valuable stamps. He nonchalantly says that he never found her head, and he walks away from his son without a second thought. It is almost as if he has permanently associated Lise with the Germans and he just wants to walk away from it all, refusing to mourn but at the same time refusing to rejoice.
The only time in the first part of Ditie’s character development where he shows any emotion is when he is being examined by the doctor to see if he is worthy of impregnating an Aryan vagina; "And I knew from reading the papers that on the very same day that I was standing here with my penis in my hand to prove myself worthy to marry a German, Germans were executing Czechs, and so I couldn't get an erection and offer the doctor a few drops of my sperm."(Hrabal 140). This is a glimmer of the kind of individual he becomes; self reflective, considering the outside world and his part in it.
The second part of Ditie’s character development is very interesting. He is all alone, with only his animals for company, when he starts to remember his past. As he would work all day he began to reflect and “to ask myself about myself”(Hrabal 237). He comes to realize that life is more than just enjoying one’s self, “ that the basic thing in life is questioning death… and that death… is a conversation that takes place between infinity and eternity, and how we deal with our own death is the beginning of what is beautiful.”(Hrabal 228). Finally Ditie has evolved into something more substantial, something with a purpose larger than pleasure. He has evolved into an individual, an individual like Skřivánek, an individual representing the Czech nation.
Miloš is very much like Ditie, his character develops in two stages. The first stage Miloš is mainly concerned about losing his innocence. He is so discouraged by not being able to perform successful intercourse with his girlfriend that he slits his wrists. The second stage arrives at the very end of the book where we see Miloš evolve into a hero.
Hrabal uses a lot of detailed gross scenes in Closely Observed Trains. After being released from the S.S. train, Miloš comes upon some dead horses, which he sits upon and fingers the mane while reminiscing about his erectile dysfunction. While on the dead horses he thinks about his time in the hospital and how the girl next to him got her feet smashed on a train, but all she cared about was that her new shoes got smashed. Just like the war is raging inside his country and yet all Miloš can think about is still losing his virginity, which seems rather insignificant in the big picture.
Like Ditie, there is really only one time in the first character development phase that Miloš actually shows some emotion. He describes a trainload of cattle from the front that are all half dead saying, "nor those vans full of young kids, when the butchers carried them with their little feet tied with rope so tightly that they were numbed and dead, I couldn't bear it, I couldn't bear it. Nor when they moved little pigs… in open two-decker wagon in the frosts, little pigs with their heads pressed together, afraid to move..Oh, this was something I never could stand!” ( Hrabal 47).
This is touching, but also ironic, because these scenes could also be used to describe the transports of the Jews. So while Miloš is screaming about cows and pigs, there are actual people who are currently going through the same exact thing but they do not even get mentioned. The extent to which Miloš describes the cows are deeply moving: “ And all those cattle were down with strangles, several of them were lying there dead; from one cow’s rump hung a dead and rotting calf… everywhere nothing but terrible pairs of eyes silently reproaching, tortured eyes over which I wrung my hands. A whole trainload of the reproachful eyes of cattle. ‘ Those Germans are swine’ I cried.”(Hrabal 47). The description of these poor cattle is heart wrenching and it seems so contradictory that such a description of livestock could conjure such emotion, but human beings in similar circumstances did not warrant mention.
Perhaps the most gruesome scene of all is also the scene that has the most to do with Miloš evolving into the hero. As he is getting ready to throw the bomb into the German supply train, the image of his grandfather comes up. Miloš is wondering why he is so calm when Hubička, the one who is always strong and courageous is so nervous, and then he realizes it is the spirit of his grandfather that gives him this strength. His grandfather stood alone with his outstretched hands trying to stop the German army with his hypnotic powers. The tanks do stop for a second, but then charge forward. Miloš’s grandfather never moves and his head gets smashed into the tanks tracks. The tank had to be sent to Prague in order to get the tracks working again, because of grandfather’s smashed head. It is here that Miloš feels his grandfather’s spirit, the spirit of a hero, who is not afraid to die for something, and he is proud to get to be apart of the operation to throw the bomb into the train. Even after he gets shot and is lying there in the dark, dying he repeats the words of the chief of the mail train about the German, “ You should have sat at home on your arse...”( Hrabal 91).Even though he dies, his spirit will live on with the Czech people, with all the allies charging down upon the Germans and finally bring them to their knees.
In conclusion, both Closely Observed Trains and I Served the King of England show the trials and concerns of an individual living in the Czech Republic through some of the most tumultuous times in Czech history. It shows the significance of everyday life, and yet it shows its obscurity as well. The reader sees the protagonists mature into something greater than them, becoming a part of the Czech Spirit. The Czech Spirit which will fight back, and cannot be crushed.
Hrabal, Bohumil, Closely Observed Trains, Little Brown Book group, London England, 2006.
Hrabal, Bohumil, I Served the King of England, Vintage, London England, 2006.
Lingea, English-Czech, Czech-English, Lingea, Czech Republic.