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Peter Pišt’anek: Rivers of Babylon (Rivers of Babylon)

There is a long tradition in Czech/Slovak literature of the anti-hero, from The Good Soldier Schweik to Bohumil Hrabal, Příliš hlučná samota (Too Loud a Solitude) in particular. Haňtá, of Příliš hlučná samota (Too Loud a Solitude), is in wastepaper. Rácz, of this book, is a stoker, but the principle is the same, even if the result if very different. I very much doubt if this book was endorsed by the Slovak Tourism Board. One of the characters, a visiting Swede (he visits because of the cheap prostitutes – of both sexes), sums it up. He has no doubt that this nation is composed not merely of parasites and fools but also of honest and educated working people. The point is that Hurensson has never yet met such people, nor even found a trace of their existence. And nor do we. Every character is a crook, corrupt, dishonest, on the make and, in almost cases, ruthless. Moreover, these are not the loveable rogues of literature but generally nasty and vicious people whom we would do well to avoid.

Rácz is the hero or, at least, the main character. Rácz was from the country. He had done his military service and studied two years at agricultural college. His parents died recently and, apparently, left a lot of money but it is nowhere to be found. We later learn that his relatives stole it all. Rácz wants to marry Eržika Kišš but her father, the local butcher, is very well off and is looking for someone better as a son-in-law, someone like Feri Bartaloš, Rácz’ enemy since school. Accordingly, Kišš suggests that Rácz goes off to the city to make his fortune, while Kišš, in the absence of Rácz, will marry his daughter to the much more suitable Feri Bartaloš.

Meanwhile, we have been learning about Donáth, the stoker at the Hotel Ambassador. Donáth is getting old and wants to retire. The problem is that the heating system is very old and antiquated and no-one but Donáth can make it work. Without him, everyone will freeze. The manager refuses to let him retire till he finds a replacement, not an easy task. The heating system should, of course, have been replaced years ago but to do so would be too expensive and too disruptive so it needs a Donáth to keep it going. Not surprisingly, when Rácz arrives in the city, he meets Donáth, who sees a way out of his predicament and soon trains Rácz to do his job. He is helped by the fact that the task is officially allocated to four people, so the stoker draws two salaries as well as all the bonuses (the other two salaries going to the manager). But Rácz is not like his predecessor. Donáth grumbled and complained but, with a bit of bribery from the various parts of the hotel and the local businesses who depended on the Ambassador for their heating, he got on with the job. Rácz is made of sterner stuff. He accepts the bribes but he is not going to be pushed around by anyone. When the manager threatens him, it is the beginning of the end for the manager. The various services of the hotel and the other users of the heating system soon realise that the price will be higher but they are prepared to pay. Payment is not just in money – though Rácz gets lot of that – it is also in sexual favours (the prostitutes who use the hotel) and, in particular, in influence. What Rácz wants, Rácz gets. The manager is gradually ostracised, left without not only heat but also anything else. Gradually Rácz takes over the hotel.

Rácz is very good at getting help from others. Video Urban, for example, who dreams of making videos but is, in fact, an illegal currency dealer (at which he makes a lot of money by changing money for tourists at the border), is soon working for Rácz as are the former secret police and other shady characters. Even the gypsies, who are running a protection racket, e.g. on Freddy Piggybank who runs the car park in front of the Ambassador, that he leases from the local council, are soon beholden to Rácz. It is only a matter of time before Rácz takes over everything or falls on his face. Of course, when he goes back to Kišš, he is now top dog.

Pišt’anek holds little back – random violence (including casual murders), sexual brutality and generalised cruelty abound. There are no redeeming characters, except perhaps for the prostitutes who, though often venal, do seem to get the worse treatment. Even the outsiders – the tourists and the businessmen – are intent on cheap sex and easy money. Pišt’anek shows us that his country is depraved and lets us know it in no uncertain terms.

Publishing history

First published by Archa, Bratislava in 1991
First published in English by Garnett in 2007