Slovakia: the other side

Mona responded to my Halfway Appeal for countries I have yet to find books from with several interesting ideas. When it came to Slovakia, she suggested Peter Pišťánek’s Rivers of Babylon. There was a good interview with him, in which he talked about the reasons not many Slovak writers have been translated into English, on Three Percent, she said.

This grabbed my attention because I had been puzzling for some time over the scarcity of Slovak writers with work available in English, as compared to the relative plethora of Czech authors who have been translated. Given the disparity, an English-language reader might be forgiven for thinking that nearly all the writers ran east when Czechoslovakia split at the end of 1992.

Personally I’m not sure I buy Peter Pišťánek’s theory that the lack of Slovak literature in translation is down to a perception that the nation is ‘not as exotic. Not “Eastern” enough’. Still, I was intrigued to find the problem that I’d run up against acknowledged by this leading Slovak man of letters, widely claimed as the nation’s most flamboyant and fearless writer. His first work to have made it into English would do nicely for me.

Much like my Czech book, Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude, the 1991 novel Rivers of Babylon begins with an institutionalised old man, Donath, who has spent his life slaving away in a punishing and solitary physical job until his very thought processes have become warped and shaped by the machines he serves. There, however, the similarities end. Because, unlike Hrabal’s paper compacter Hanta, who is ultimately destroyed by his work, the young man Racz who comes to take over from Donath in the boiler room of the Hotel Ambassador is not easily crushed. Instead of regarding his work heating the building and surrounding businesses through the cruel winter as a moral duty, Racz recognises it as a lever that he can use to raise his own position. Before long, he is holding the luxury hotel and the town around it to ransom, with hilarious, outrageous and deeply disturbing results.

Pišťánek is a master of manipulation. Whether he is describing the embarrassment of international guests who allow themselves to be extorted by the stoker out of fear of committing a cultural faux pas, the preening of the prostitute who falls for a hustler’s story that he is a wealthy doctor, or Racz’s wilful self-delusion that he is working hard for the good of all, the writer reveals how perception is the key to control.

He combines this insight with sharp wit that enables him to deliver killer one-liners and farcical set pieces beneath which sinister currents twist and drag. There is the car-park attendant whose trailer is towed to the middle of nowhere while he sleeps inside it by gypsies bent on fleecing him, the deranged manager forced to camp out in his freezing office and survive on dead dogs, and the former secret policeman who blacks up as part of an attempt to infiltrate Racz’s operation but ends up leaving dirty finger marks everywhere. And every so often there is a line or an image that takes your breath away with its inventiveness – I particularly like the early description of Racz’s thoughts being ‘scattered all over the place like an egg smashed against a wall’, after he has suffered the humiliation that sparks his takeover bid.

But it doesn’t stop there. There is an anarchic side to Pišťánek’s writing that makes it overflow the boundaries of conventional storytelling and flood beyond the limits of the book. This is a story that is undaunted in its ambition to take on and pull apart the corrupt structures of the new Slovak democracy for which the vice-riddled Hotel Ambassador is often only a thinly veiled metaphor – as the tongue-in-cheek quote on the cover suggests:

‘[Expletives deleted] Prime Minister Mečiar of Slovakia

And if we non-Slovaks think we can sit back comfortably and enjoy the ride, we’ve got another thing coming. In the personage of the slimy Swedish sex tourist Gunnar Hurensson, we are forced to confront all the common Western prejudices about eastern and central Europeans that are too often allowed to slip by unchallenged.

The result is a furious, hilarious and important book that is among one of the most engrossing things I’ve read all year. Three cheers for Garnett Press for publishing this, the first part of a trilogy. I look forward to reading the rest.

Rivers of Babylon by Peter Pišťánek, translated from the Slovak by Peter Petro (Garnett Press, 2007)