Bohumil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England is one of the great achievements of 20th-century Czech literature, a fantastical tale of a young, street-savvy waiter named Ditie and the bizarre characters he encounters in some of Prague’s most opulent hotels before and after the war.
Ditie’s tales of debauchery, romping aristocrats and crazy waiters often border on the surreal, but many of the settings and characters were based on reality. A key location in the book, the lavish Hotel Paris, a monument to the Art Nouveau movement, is still standing. But only just, as it was stripped almost bare during the Communist regime.
Ditie describes the hotel in its heyday as “so beautiful that I almost fell over. So many mirrors and so many brass banisters… and so polished it resembled a golden palace.” Unfortunately, this was not lost on the new Communist rulers who seized the property in 1947.
“The Communists were barbarians – they tore up the floors, stole the light fixtures, sold the chandeliers – anything they could get their hands on,” said manager Antonin Brandejs, whose grandfather features as the owner in the book.
Much of the family was thrown in prison or forced into exile. Mr Brandejs made a fortune abroad, which was just as well: when he returned to retrieve the hotel after the fall of Communism, it cost him €25m (£21m) to return it to its former glory. “The only bit of luck we had was that the Communists were philistines – they covered up the mural in the restaurant behind a wood panel.” The excess of the novel might be less in evidence today, but after two decades of renovation, Hotel Paris has returned to a state that Ditie would be proud of.