Peter Pišťanek

Dynamic Pleasures of Rivers of Babylon
John de Falbe Peter Pišťanek Rivers of Babylon / Rivers of Babylon Translated by Peter Petro London, Garnett Press, 2007

Set in Bratislava in 1989/90, following the collapse of the Czechoslovak communist government, Rivers Of Babylon centres on the change in personnel and power structure in the Hotel Ambassador. The first person we meet is Donáth, the stoker, who has operated the antiquated heating machinery for fifty years. Although ‘the meaningful world has shrunk to that of his boiler-room’, he wants to retire because ‘he’d like to have a rest’ and ‘he’s found a lady friend.’ The outraged manager, who ‘was certain that after fifty years the stoker had become the legal property of the hotel’, is informed by the lawyer that there are laws against keeping someone against their will, and he hopes that Donáth will at least have the grace to find a replacement.
As luck would have it, Donáth encounters Rácz, an uneducated youth from the country who has left his pig and his cow and his horse to come and make some money in the city so that he can go back to marry the village butcher’s daughter. The work suits Rácz well: he is strong, indifferent to company and, besides, there is a double salary and ‘all collective bonuses’ because the boiler-room used to be operated by four shift workers who are now dead, but whose wages still keep being paid. Immediately after Donáth’s departure, however, Rácz comes to understand that control over the heating gives him power over the whole hotel. And he isn’t afraid to use that power: immune to emotions, terrifying in his rage, fear is unknown to him.
Rácz quickly learns to use his power to extort money and services from those around him: guests, whores, gypsies, the hotel staff – everyone soon falls under his spell, including a currency dealer who hangs around the Hotel with the delightful name of Video Urban. In return for some grubby services, Urban acquires a sophisticated video camera from a Swede, but instead of starting a new career filming weddings and such socially respectable activities, as originally intended, he ‘decided to mortify his natural human instincts’ and offer his services to ‘capture and immortalize your moments of pleasure with your partner’ (in the words of his small ad). Although ostensibly the most opportunistic and corruptible character, he is the nearest to a moral barometer in the chaotic times because he retains his critical intelligence and his sense of humour. He recognizes that ‘Rácz is the stupidest and most limited person I’ve ever met… He has less intelligence than Urban’s left shoe. But he is incredibly adaptive. And predatory… He wants everything. Rácz is a natural catastrophe.’ Yet he too is forced to join Rácz’s ghastly circus.
The novel is built from short scenes involving a vivid cast of characters. There are the whores, ready for anything but human and distinct: beautiful Silvia, a dancer from the hotel cabaret who dreams of being whisked away by a glamorous foreign businessman; Edita, who dreams of pleasuring Silvia; Wanda the Trucker, Dripsy Eva. There is Dula, who starts off as the manager’s sidekick and effortlessly transfers his services to Rácz; fat Freddy Piggybank, the car park attendant, who is thirty and ‘never had a woman in his life’ but remains convinced that one day ‘he’s sure to get a free roll in the hay’ – and meanwhile is easy prey for the gypsies who want a cut of his takings. There is Mozon and his two henchmen, former secret policemen who find congenial employment with Rácz. We are even pleased to meet lumpish Eržika in her village, and Zdravko G., an Albanian goatherd who has escaped to Vienna from where he regularly visits the Hotel Ambassador because the Slovakian whores are cheap. Eventually, believing that Zdravko G. is a successful Yugoslavian doctor, poor generous Silvia and Edita allow themselves to be abducted to Austria and sold.
Rivers Of Babylon is fast and very funny. It is also, of course, a serious and weighty portrait of a society sliding from the sluggish, understood corruption of late Soviet life into an apparently inescapable, irredeemable vortex of criminality where everyone is hostage to an individual’s unscrupulous manipulation of power. Reminiscent of Andrei Kurkov’s hilarious Death And The Penguin, it belongs to the powerful tradition of Central European black humour exemplified by Jaroslav Hašek and Bohumil Hrabal. The translation is excellent. One can only admire the diligence and energy of the remarkable Donald Rayfield and his Garnett Press for making this splendid novel available to an English-speaking readership.

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