I Served the King of England

Unspoken Boundaries in “I Served the King of England” and “The Family of Pascual Duarte”

June 22, 2019 by Essay Writer

The concept of an `unspoken’ boundary is one drenched in ambiguity, with any clear sense of its nature, function and effect seeming initially obscure. However, these unnoticeable boundaries still exert a strong restrictive grip on both protagonist and narrative in Bohumil Hrabal’s novel I Served The King Of England and Camilo José Cela’s text The Family of Pascual Duarte. In my analysis of Hrabal’s novel, I hope to explicate both the function and effect of these spectral boundaries on the antihero Ditie, as he attempts to transgress both national and social borders. Next, in an attempt to theorise the nature and extent of these invisible boundaries in Pascual Duarte, I will focus my analysis on the novel’s paratext; by this I mean the series of narrative fragments that act as a frame for Pascual’s confession. In his novel, Hrabal depicts various silent barriers working in concert to hold back his timid protagonist, Ditie; conversely, Cela presents a dense matrix of liminal boundaries that threaten both destruction and collapse upon the wider narrative. Both texts, however, can be seen as haunted and confined by an abundance of these `unspoken’ boundaries.

Ditie initially seems able to traverse the visible boundaries of national difference, being on a strictly material level accepted by the Germans currently occupying his native country. He remarks that none less than `the Bureau for the Defense of German Honour and Blood could find no objection to my marrying an Aryan of German blood’1, and this double evocation of `blood’ reflects these purely biological grounds on which Ditie is grudgingly accepted into the Reich. This sense of acceptance even extends to his denial of the Czech name `Ditě, which means child’ (Hrabal, pg. 135). Recoiling from the infantile nature of `child’, Ditie states triumphantly that `Now I was Herr Ditie, and for the Germans there was no child in my name’ (Hrabal, pg. 135). This bestowal of the German honorific `Herr’ appears to officially name Ditie a German subject, suggesting that the boundary of nationality has been truly surmounted. However, Hrabal punctures this optimism by confining Ditie within an unspoken boundary of racial prejudice. After his wedding to Lise, Ditie notes `that they put up with me as an Aryan but still considered me a dumb Bohemian despite my bright yellow hair’ (Hrabal, pg. 143). Despite fulfilling the surface requirements of the Master Race, namely `bright yellow hair’ and the aforementioned `German blood’, Ditie cannot cross this invisible barrier; he remains `a dumb Bohemian’. Later on, Hrabal puts this even more starkly when Ditie states `I became an alien’ (Hrabal, pg. 144). This self-classification as `alien’ is the ultimate estrangement from his alleged new compatriots; Ditie’s attempt to cross the tacit boundaries of racial prejudice is depicted as one that results only in complete social alienation. Critic and cultural theorist Raymond Williams interprets alienation in his “Keywords” as an `extensive feeling of a division between man and society’2. Hrabal echoes this sense of the word through his depiction of an unspoken, yet rigidly policed `division’ between Ditie and thepparatus of the Third Reich.

Ditie, over the course of I Served the King of England, also appears to effectively transgress visible boundaries of social class. His upward mobility is explicitly the result of war crimes, namely the theft and sale of Jewish property; nonetheless, Ditie declares brazenly `I was big now, I was a millionaire’ (Hrabal, pg. 183). He brags of his wealth, openly `talking about my million crowns and my Hotel in the Quarry’ (Hrabal, pg. 194) to his fellow millionaires in the seminary. However, despite owning this `Hotel in the Quarry’, therefore fulfilling the material requirement to join the prestigious Association of Hotelkeepers, Ditie laments that `those hotel owners could still make me feel humiliated, because I wasn’t one of them, I wasn’t of equal rank’ (Hrabal, pg. 182). The reason for this lack of `equal rank’, this reduction to lower levels of the social hierarchy despite material wealth, is revealed by Hrabal to be another invisible boundary; in this case, one that again limits Ditie in overcoming his alienation from wider society. The nature of this boundary is revealed when Ditie describes his fellow millionaires as having `got their millions a long time ago, long before the war, whereas I was a war profiteer’ (Hrabal, pg. 194). This conception of Ditie as an upstart, a nouveau riche, means that he can never truly join the established bourgeois elite, represented in the novel by hoteliers Mr Brandejs and Mr Šroubek. Hrabal, therefore, depicts the final untraversable, unspoken boundary in his novel as one constituted by systematic class prejudice.

The Family of Pascual Duarte is also confined by its own unspoken boundary, in this case a multiplicity of fictional paratexts; Cela uses notes, letters and dedications to both surround and enclose the main text of the novel, casting doubt on its veracity and destabilising its foundations. The first paratext of the novel is a `Preliminary Note from the Transcriber’3, which details the ordering and censorship of Pascual’s manuscript under the auspice of an unnamed, mysterious `Transcriber’. The adjective `Preliminary’ emphasises the primacy of these paratexts in relation to the main text of the novel; Cela subverts any notions of textual purity from the outset, trapping Pascual’s confessions within nebulous boundaries of censorship and outside influence. This censorship can be seen when the Transcriber notes that `Certain passages, which were too crude, I have preferred to cut out rather than rewrite’ (Cela, pg. 4). Additionally, Pascual himself practices self-censorship in his letter to Don Joaquín, remarking that `There were some things would have made me retch in my soul to relate, and I preferred to remain silent and try to forget them’ (Cela, pg. 6). With this removal of aspects deemed `too crude’, Cela makes it clear that this double censorship is of a moralising nature. Therefore, traditional morality can be read as another system of invisible boundaries limiting Pascual from truly communicating to his readers, fictional and otherwise. Critics Bennett and Royle, in their chapter on literary openings, note that deployment of paratexts can help a text to displace its own beginning4; in Pascual Duarte, Cela not only displaces the `true’ beginning of his novel, but also actively undermines it.

Other paratexts, the unspoken boundaries to the diegetic world of Pascual’s manuscript, threaten the destruction of the narrative before it even begins. An extract from the will of Don Joaquín, first recipient of Pascual’s manuscript, expresses a wish for the text to be `consigned to the flames’ (Cela, pg. 9), and Pascual himself in his letter speaks of `throwing it into the fire in a moment of despondency’ (Cela, pg. 5). This double evocation of a cleansing `fire’ establishes the text as a cursed, taboo object with a destabilising effect on its (fictional) readers. This method of textual destruction is especially violent, when compared with the careful censorships noted beforehand; yet these three paratexts (the transcriber’s note, Pascual’s letter and Don Joaquín’s will) all contribute to depicting the upcoming narrative as one both cursed and immoral, condemning the text before it is even presented to the reader. This paratextual preconception of Pascual as `not a model to be imitated, but to be shunned’ (Cela, pg. 4) acts as another tacit boundary, in that it confines Pascual’s attempt to portray himself as morally good within his own confession; a proclivity seen in his opening address to the reader, where he pleads `I am not, sir, a bad person, though in all truth I am not lacking in reasons for being one’ (Cela, pg. 13). Jacques Derrida, in “Of Grammatology”, declares that `There is no outside text’5. Cela reflects this by having the `outside’ frame of his novel, the paratexts, hold back Pascual’s attempts at a complete confession, and therefore any chance of extricating himself `from the mud of crime and sin’ (Cela, pg. 150).

The final paratext presented by Cela is the most limiting to any notion of narrative coherence within Pascual Duarte. Pascual dedicates his manuscript `To the memory of the distinguished patrician Don Jesús… who, at the moment when the author of this chronicle came to kill him, called him Pascualillo, and smiled’ (Cela, pg. 11). This event is absent within the novel; therefore, this dedication serves to draw attention towards an unspoken hole within the novel proper, fragmenting any sense of textual unity completely. This hole within the diegetic world effects a narrative collapse, latent until the end of the novel; it is this collapse which induces the novel’s abrupt end in mid-sentence-`I could breathe…’ (Cela, pg. 158). The effect of this plunge into incoherence are noted by the transcriber, who remarks that `we know nothing, absolutely nothing, about Pascual Duarte in his later epoch’ (Cela, pg. 160). The double negative ‘nothing, absolutely nothing’ reinforces this sense of a narrative void, a gap only discernible to the reader via the clues within the novel’s paratext. It is possible to read this hole in the narrative as Cela evading the dangerous topic of the Spanish Civil War, for fear of political reprisal; in this reading, the hint at revolutionary violence in the murder of `the distinguished patrician’ in the paratext is an especially subversive one. Therefore, it is possible to interpret the Civil War as the ultimate unspoken boundary that holds back the scope of the narrative of Pascual Duarte, a taboo event which can only be gestured at obliquely in the novel’s paratext.

Both I Served the King of England and The Family of Pascual Duarte present a series of unspoken, taboo boundaries that both hold back and confine their respective narratives. Hrabal depicts his protagonist, Ditie, as being continually frustrated in his traversal of visible social borders by invisible, inferred boundaries of racial and class prejudice. These boundaries limit Ditie in order to effect a complete societal alienation, an estrangement that culminates in Ditie’s exile in the Czech borderlands. Likewise, Cela deploys an extensive system of fictional paratexts to both restrict and control his text’s ability to present a coherent, uncompromised narrative to the reader. However, Hrabal’s usage of unspoken boundaries differs sharply from Cela; in his novel, they are presented as visible obstacles within the main narrative, and are clearly apparent to the reader within it. They are only `unspoken’ in that they represent the hidden prejudices which stagnate any attempt by Ditie to truly transcend his nationality and social class. Cela, conversely, compromises his narrative with silent barriers of censorship, and undermines the visible, stated boundaries of his plot by referring to `unspoken’ events not presented to the reader. Ultimately, it is therefore apparent that the unspoken boundaries in Cela’s text are far more insidious, far-reaching and malevolent than those in Hrabal’s.


Bennett, Andrew and Nicholas Royle, An Introduction To Literature, Criticism And Theory (Harlow, England: Pearson/Longman, 2004)

Cela, Camilo Jose and Anthony Kerrigan, The Family Of Pascual Duarte, Translated By Anthony Kerrigan (USA: Little, Brown and Co., 1964)

Derrida, Jacques, Of Grammatology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976)

Hrabal, Bohumil, I Served The King Of England (London: Vintage, 2006)

Williams, Raymond, Keywords (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985)

1Bohumil Hrabal, I Served The King Of England (London: Vintage, 2006), Pg. 141. Further references to this source follow quotations in the text.

2Raymond Williams, Keywords (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), Pg. 36.

3Camilo Jose Cela and Anthony Kerrigan, The Family Of Pascual Duarte, Translated By Anthony Kerrigan (USA: Little, Brown and Co., 1964), Pg. 3. Further references to this source follow quotations in the text.

4Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle, An Introduction To Literature, Criticism And Theory (Harlow, England: Pearson/Longman, 2004), Pg. 6.

5Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), Pg. 158.

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