Peter Pišťanek, The End of Freddy (Rivers of Babylon 3), trans. Peter Petro (London: Garnett, 2008).
This is the third and final installment in Rivers of Babylon trilogy, so named for its first novel and continuing in its second book, The Wooden Village. As I’ve remarked before, Pišťanek’s principal goal seems to be to explode the myth that Slovakia is the land of peaceable beekeepers, trodding their way silently through history, hoping that the surrounding exploiters will just leave them be.
If Pišťanek’s telling is at all accurate, then Slovakia can supply plenty of exploiters on its own, thank you very much.
That said, I’m not altogether sure what Pišťanek has been driving at in these three volumes. I can extract a potent critique of nationalism from this installment, or bitter disappointment that the grand promises of democracy and free markets have degenerated into corrupt crony capitalism.
I could even almost say that this novel aims to offer a skewering critique of the pornography industry (one of many industries underdeveloped in the former Soviet empire, and probably the only case where that was a good thing), except that by the time I was done I was no longer clear on the boundary between critiquing pornography and actually engaging in pornography. Reader be warned: the novel includes a number of plot sketches for films by the eponymous Freddy, director of a profitable porn enterprise, and they are impressively revolting.
After a flawless plot arc in the first novel, I was disoriented and disappointed by the random and unfulfilled direction of the second; and unfortunately, how much more in this third and final book. I mean, I did not actually like the parts covering Freddy’s porn career and all the brutality therein, but I hardly knew what to make of the abrupt transition from them to the long central section depicting other hitherto unknown characters undergoing submarine training, in dull detail.
Moreover, the harshly realistic if picaresque first two novels stayed within the frame of recent history, but this one charts off abruptly into alternate history, imagining a colony of Slovaks to have settled on the imaginary Arctic island of Junja, north of Russia, suddenly engaged in a battle for independence, led by ex-pornographer Freddy after his death wish fails him. Added to that are a number of Czechs, whose country has become a kingdom post-independence, and a lot of imagined political absurdities over possibly reuniting divided Czechoslovakia. (It’s not an impossibility to do this well: elsewhere I’ve seen the imaginary colony of Slovaks pulled off with much greater success.)
Along our counterfactual way, we see our old friend Video Urban, having a sometime affair with his first cousin Tina; nemesis Rácz, up to his usual evil tricks; and a lot of drunken Junjans who who worship Jesus because he crucifies his enemies, which is obviously the only sensible way to deal with them.
If you have a good grasp of recent Slovak (and Czech) history, there is plenty to glean here in the way of satire. But the effort is extremely unpolished. It read to me like the kind of thing that would have been thrown together by a bunch of friends drinking slivovica and in the hilarity of the moment suggesting wild ideas—“What if the Royal Czech Army decided it needed a navy despite being nowhere near a coastline?” “What if those Junjan Slovaks no longer understood their own native language and recited epic poetry in an incomprehensible garble?” “What if an icon of eco-friendly fashion had a whole army of enslaved Ukrainians working for her right under the feet of thronging Western tourists in Prague?”—and then, on principle, incorporating all of them into an ever-more unwieldly story. I’m sure it was fun in the moment, but I’m also sure you had to be there to get the joke.
Look, I’m all for satire, biting satire at that (though I could do without the pornography, myself). But the satire is vastly less effective when the story fails qua story. The title led me to expect the end of Freddy, but it happened so suddenly and with so little detail that I was rather deflated. And then Video Urban of all people seems to have a religious awakening at the very end, without preparation or follow-through. If it’s not lazy writing, it’s at least sloppy.
This isn’t the first time I’ve seen this problem in Slovak novels I’ve reviewed; but it is hardly restricted to Slovaks as a group. Hear me, O writers: if you are a telling a story at all, then tell your story well. Your satire will have ten thousand times the punch.