...make sure it's this one. This novel should have been required reading for Western businessmen venturing East to make a killing in the early post-Communist period. Sadly, for many of them, this translation comes too late. However, those watching the oil- and gas-powered rise of Putin's Russia may want to take note... Rivers of Babylon is a brutally, blackly hilarious parody rags-to-riches tale of a Slovak Hungarian peasant, Rácz, who arrives in Bratislava and gets a job as a stoker in a hotel. He realises the power and wealth he can amass simply by turning off people's heating, and steadily builds an indomitable business empire. Anyone who spent time in the early nineties in an East European hotel car park will recognize the charming cast of money-changers, pimps, prostitutes, hucksters, chancers, gangsters, ex-secret policemen and creepy Western businessmen, who assist in Rácz's rise to power or perish. Pist'anek does not moralise, however, but provides an exuberant, savage cartoon, celebrating the power of story-telling and the wicked imagination of the human being unhampered by physical timidity or moral inhibitions. You will be left wanting more - and there are two more volumes in the pipeline, as long as no one cuts us off...
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'Rivers of Babylon' by Peter Pis'tanek (pronounced pishtyanek, apparently) is a caustic satirical novel set in a big hotel in Bratislava, now the capital of Slovakia but then in Czechoslovakia, at the time of the collapse of the communist government. It has a cast of prostitutes, black-market money changers, former secret policemen and sex tourists.
The anti-hero of the novel Rácz, who starts out stoking the boilers the hotel, but ruthlessly fights his way up the food chain. The introduction suggests that 'Rácz will prove as immortal a rogue as Fielding's Jonathan Wild, Gogol's Chichikov or Thomas Mann's Felix Krull'. I'd only add that 'rogue' seems too mild a word for a character as brutal as Rácz.
The comparison that sprang to mind for me (and I should probably be more careful of these comparisons to half-remembered books I read more than a decade a go) was 'A Confederacy of Dunces'. It has something of the extravagantly grotesque quality that I remember Toole's book having. 'Rivers of Babylon' was published in 1991, so it was absolutely topical at the time, and it has the real edge of satire written in response to dramatic current events.
More importantly it's genuinely funny; one of the best novels I've read for years.
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Slovak frauleins: tread carefully here!27 Aug. 2009
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This is the book review that author Pistanek knew had to be coming sooner or later. The violence towards women in ROB is over the top; general misogyny abounds. To be sure, this novel is many things: multilayered and complex, but one thing it is not is reticent in bashing the minorities who reside in Bratislava. Maybe perhaps, Racz (our main character and anti-hero) is the only one to escape the scathing scythe of the narrator of the story. Albanians are described as racketeers, the Roma as thieves, capitalists as obese and academic types as "intellectual parasites." As if all this weren't bad enough, women in ROB represent either pole of the Madonna/whore complex (with the vast majority residing in the latter category).
If this misogynistic mindset is representative sentiment of the contemporary male in today's Slovak Republic, then may our sympathies be extended to Slovak women please? Think of women's status circa 1950s in the USA; well, that is where central Europeans may very well be today. Women's civil rights haven't even been broached yet, let alone put into active practice.
Violence against women runs rampant throughout ROB, as do pornographic images of women getting tortured. One wonders whether the author of such things is a cave-dweller himself, or if such hatred towards women is widespread in Slovakia. The first female we encounter in the story is Silvia--"a cheap Slovak whore" (which we are told repeatedly is the norm in Blava as compared to other European prostitutes). Silvia is painted as a golddigger, natch, and by page 80, becomes Racz's personal "property." She's no dummy, though and muses "Men don't like very intelligent women...she will have to arouse his protective instincts, a desire to defend a fragile being." Racz actually has an opinion on this as well.
On page 201, he theorizes that "Women need looking after. They have to have an eye kept on them. They have to be protected and so do a man's interests. That's how it has to be."
Toward the end of our story, Racz meets Lenka, who actually IS intelligent and attending university. A friend of Racz's is forthright in his view that Lenka "deserves to be Racz's pawn;" furthermore, "he'll knock all the BS out of her head." For their first intimate encounter, Racz basically rapes poor, resisting Lenka, then has the gall to later make her out to be a nymphomaniac. She eventually gets pregnant and "interrupts her studies indefinitely."
Another Slovak woman brought down.
Sigh. There is one bright note in all of this wallowing misogyny. On page 115, a nameless female in the story comes right out with "Men make messes that women have to clean up. Don't women have any rights? Women want a life, too."
But that's the sole note of fairness to women in ROB.