If you read my memoir (whenever it is published!), you will encounter a land full of charm, kind people, good food, religious devotion, beautiful landscapes, hilarious teenage romance, high-spirited escapades, and witty exchanges, all set against the backdrop of a fascinating history.
The antidote you may need to all that wholesomeness is Peter Pišťanek’s novel Rivers of Babylon. You could not ask for a more compelling account of repellent people. Pišťanek offers, as an insider, a devastating critique of Slovak society and its self-delusions.
The book was published in 1991, only two years after the end of communism. It’s set in Bratislava, still a provincial capital in the as-yet not-divorced Czechoslovakia. All the action takes place from late summer 1989 through spring 1990. What you’d expect from a narrative set in, and written so close to, the revolution is—a tale of the revolution. Instead, you get a startling account of plus ça change: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
There is only one direct reference to the dramatic events that made the entire Soviet bloc come a-tumbling down, when one character complains that what he has now isn’t what he marched in those cold streets for. And that’s it. A few ex-secret policemen (i.e. from Czechoslovakia’s version of the KGB) utter a few bitter remarks about the changes being only temporary and how power will soon be restored to the working classes, although in their case “working” means “advanced techniques in torture with a side order of ham-handed spying.” Overall, though, there is no palpable difference in the way things are run before and after. Still the same extensive network of vice and crime, still the same power plays, still the same obfuscatory bureaucracy. No wonder people so quickly became disenchanted with “democracy.”
The “free market” fares no better. There is nothing free about what’s going on—from the self-defeating strategies and eventual horrifying fate of the prostitutes Silvia and Edita, to the scams committed against parking lot attendant Freddy Piggybank from the gypsies on one side and the city government on the other, to Video Urban’s sideline in black market currency trading, all the way to the central thread of the story: country bumpkin Rácz’s ascent to prominence by the unlikely means of controlling the boiler room in a fancy downtown hotel. Rácz is the inversion of the nationalist myth of the humble, hardworking, unjustly oppressed peasant full of soulful religious virtues: he is simply a brute and the product of a brutal, ignorant peasant culture. It just so happens that his upbringing prepares him well to reach an apex of power during the post-communist “voucher” period, when state-owned businesses were auctioned off between cronies for a fraction of their real value. It’s widely known now how extraordinarily corrupt this whole process was. Rivers of Babylon gives us the insider’s view, erasing any illusions about the innocent victimhood of the Slovak people, which is the usual line.
It’s easy to get riveted on the lurid details, but what struck me the most was the sheer empty boredom of the characters’ lives. They live for appetite—for sex, food, and power—but there seems to be very little in the way of actual enjoyment of any of them. Freddy accumulates a great deal of money but never actually spends it and doesn’t even know why he wants it so badly. Rácz begins his climb to the top to retaliate against a humiliation, but once he is on the upward trajectory to total control there is no particular thought given to why, only that he wants it. The one thing that’s clear is that there’s no way to exit this existence once embarked upon. Not only is it too dangerous, there’s literally nowhere to go—no friends, no family, no work, no hope.
All in all the novel is utterly relentless, and not advisable for those weak of stomach. It is one scene after another of crime, brutality, sex bought and sold, lies and double-crossings. It’s no surprise that it caused such a sensation when it was published. The back cover includes a pretend blurb from Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar of Slovakia, a notorious crook, that says: “[Expletives deleted].” The only surprise is how long it took to get translated into English. Author Pišťanek has some ideas about why that might be the case.
Does it have a happy ending? I suppose that depends whose side you’re on. There is definitely a twist ending. And now there are also two sequels. But truth be told, I’m going to have to take some time to recover from this one before plunging into the next.