This book is the sequel to Rivers of Babylon, which as I noted in my review was the perfect antidote to the uplifting, wholesome, and charming portrait of Slovakia in my forthcoming memoir. True to its predecessor, The Wooden Village recounts in lurid detail the squalor of Slovakia’s seamy underside.
The title refers to the frequently seen stations of wooden booths throughout Slovakia offering toilets, beer, and in this particular novel, prostitution. Several of the characters, who have continued on from the last story, find themselves slowly squeezed out of their meagerly paid positions in the wooden village as the transitions to the new post-communist economy move faster than they can adapt to.
After a brief uptick in income due to a disenchanted wealthy girl’s brief tenure as a hooker, Eržika, Feri, and Freddy Piggybank find themselves destitute again, briefly opting for the horrifying if hilarious job of luring kids on expensive bikes with ice cream, only to rob them of their valuable vehicles. Not very talented criminals any of them, it’s a short-lived enterprise.
A new character makes his appearance in this second novel: Martin Junec, a defector from the old regime who’s made a bundle in America as a manufacturer. His plywood lamps are making a splash in Europe, so he decides to return to his now-capitalist homeland to see if he can set up a factory. One of the most hilarious scenes of the book recounts his attempts to persuade his sister and brother-in-law to go into business with him, which will require moving to Bratislava; they persist in an obviously ill-fated plan to earn a fortune off a boutique in their remote mountain town. Their abject inability to grasp what the new economy requires of them drives Martin mad, but he can’t shift them.
An equally frustrating obstacle awaits him back in Bratislava, though, where the new capitalists prove to be every bit the corrupt cronies of communism’s centralized economy, requiring bribes, backroom deals, and steering clear of an old mistress if Martin has any hope of getting his business going. Ultimately giving up on Slovakia, Martin departs and his story concludes, a bit bizarrely, with a trip to a tiny Pacific island to propose marriage to his Jewish-American anthropologist lover. (Side note: I was delighted to catch the reference in the line “Martin is assailed by the embarrassing feeling of an intruder opening thirteen rooms one by one”—a reference to the Slovak fairy tale “Twelve Brothers and a Thirteenth Sister,” which I’ve translated into English.)
Then there’s the continuing story of Silvia, whom last we saw taken more or less into slavery at a brothel just across the border in Austria that specialized in advanced perversion. After four years of committing unmentionable acts (though Pišťanek does mention them), she’s made enough to set up as a madam in her own right, opening Bratislava’s first “perverts’ club.” Not without a run-in first with Rácz, however, the repulsively brilliant businessman and politician from the first book. He’s the one, in fact, who sets the conditions for the deal with Martin Junec and warns him away from Silvia, as the married Rácz abruptly decides he wants her for himself again. Outraged that a prostitute should have right of refusal, he assaults her in the most brutal scene of a fairly brutal book.
The range already indicated here in the plot summary is what makes the book’s intentions hard to judge. It is frequently vile, vulgar, and sickening. It is also frequently funny, even light-hearted. Take this scene with Junec, his Jewish lover, and his brother-in-law Žofré:
“‘Please don’t take it the wrong way, Mr. Junec,’ she said to Martin, ‘but you two remind me so much of the Marx Brothers that I had to laugh.’ …
“‘Well, I had no idea that Marx had a brother,’ said Žofré in the car.
“Junec drove in silence, though, to tell the truth, that was news to him, too.
“‘Maybe she’s confused this Marx brother with Engels,’ Žofré speculated. He took a swig of vodka from a hip-flask in his pocket. ‘Ignorant American,’ he concluded with an educated European’s superior attitude.”
Later, when Žofré has died and haunts Junec as a ghost (another feature of the story hard to place against its otherwise gruesome realism), Junec asks help of Hruškovič, an old friend and avowed charlatan who just makes stuff up for the hundreds of desperate people who come to him for healing. “Your thought conception current has been interrupted between the Chutney and the Özall points… Between these two hyper-altruistic receptors an emission of invisible polyrhythmic Övegesh particles will flow and it will charge your spinal cord with positive Khotsmah energy,” goes a sample of his comical quackery.
But these moments of comedy are set against stark horrors, like Feri selling his beautiful infant girl to an Aryan-supremacist German couple that hasn’t been able to conceive after the wife’s six abortions, or the eventual death of the Lady-turned-prostitute whose body is simply concealed in the dumpster by her amateur pimps at the wooden village.
A further problem is that the story regularly sets up expectations that fall through—Silvia’s plan for revenge on all men through the unwitting Junec, Rácz’s plan for revenge on Silvia for her persistent refusal of him even post-rape, Junec’s attempt to establish a business in Slovakia. Expectations can be successfully turned upside-down in a well-told story, but in this one they seem simply to be abandoned halfway through.
Moreover, there’s the strange outcome of (provisionally) happy endings for a number of the characters, again apart from any foreshadowing. Silvia finds herself adored by a young woman and gratefully gives up men forever, while still running her highly profitable perverts’ club without a second thought for the degradation of its employees; Freddy Piggybank enslaves himself, first as assistant and later as husband, to one of the club’s bondage specialists who turns out to be the girl who bound and tortured him when they were children. Even Junec survives being pitched out of the sixth story of his hotel—saved by his ghost of a brother-in-law—so he is free to scurry off to the Pacific. It’s altogether a very uneven ride.
Perhaps, though, the demand for logical and plot clarity is a luxury of a place with a smoother history. Perhaps The Wooden Village is simply the illustration of a point made by one of its characters: “Nothing’s too odd for Slovakia.”