Avoid the beer in Bratislava

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The Wooden Village and The End of Freddy (parts 2 & 3 of the Rivers of Babylon trilogy) by Peter Pist’anek, translated by Peter Petro (Garnett Press)

Daily Telegraph, 3 January 2009

In Rivers of Babylon, the first book of his trilogy of the same name, Peter Pist’anek foretold the energy wars now stalking Europe. Rácz, Bratislava’s chief thug, rises to build a business empire from lowly beginnings as a hotel stoker. Stupid he may be, but he understands one thing: in the post-Communist world, he who controls the heating pipes wields supreme power.

Rivers of Babylon, first published in Slovakia in 1991, was a brilliant and irresistible central European discovery. Rácz himself was both joy and genius, his ascent an amoral joke that exploded pieties about communism and capitalism indiscriminately, his empire peopled with the scum of political collapse: petty criminals, intellectuals-cum-pornographers, ex-secret policemen. This was Hasek’s Good Soldier Svejk with an unlimited arsenal of comic sex and violence.

In the second and third books of the trilogy – also superbly translated by Peter Petro – Pist’anek has built on his satire and his clairvoyance, caricaturing how power works at every level, emotional, sexual, economic, national. Nothing escapes his ridiculing wit: the Slovak nation suffers from a “hypertrophied” pride; every hustler and whore is an artist or misunderstood genius; even the Bratislava beer’s only quality is to make the drinker want to crap.

This is still Rácz’s world, but the second novel moves from Rácz’s hotel headquarters to the “wooden village” in the car park next door, with its snack bar, resident prostitute, and manager, the egregious Freddy Piggybank. Freddy is coward, liar and sadomasochist; but Pist’anek takes the reader on long, amusing flashbacks to Freddy’s bullied childhood to show, not without a tongue in cheek, how those episodes made the man who, robbed of the lease on his car park, takes a job as assistant to the dominatrix Sida at the new brothel started by Rácz’s ex-mistress, eventually becoming central Europe’s porn king.

Disgusted of both Tunbridge Wells and Camden may say that Pist’anek’s work deserves a health warning, with its view of humanity in which the natural drift of men and women is towards pimpdom and whoredom respectively, matched by a descriptive gusto for the sexual act in all its overtures and variations. The trouble is that, most of the time, it is irresistibly funny – and only flagging the axiom that what most of the human race gets up to in private is pretty weird to everyone else. Crammed with sub-plots all kept spinning, including one about an émigré Slovak electrician who becomes a Californian anthropologist’s lover and marries her in Polynesia, the dizzying verve of these diversions prompts one to wonder where it will end. The answer is, it doesn’t.

Morphing from sociology to fantasy in the final volume, The End of Freddy, and ever more hectic, the plot begins to revolve around a disputed and invented land, the Junja Archipelago, beyond the Arctic Circle. Here Junjan Slovak freedom fighters, hunters and trappers, battle for independence from the Junjans (emblems of the most barbaric aspects of Soviet oppression). The Czechs are the Junjan Slovak rebels’ virtuoso accomplices, as their newly formed navy, using refitted U-boats, runs a Russian blockade to provide “moral assistance”, their real motive (inevitably) to grab a share in the largest oil deposits on the planet, discovered under the Junjan ice.

Whether you think Pist’anek is finally going off the rails at this point will depend on your willingness to morph your suspension of disbelief to include a story without basis in fact. What carried The End of Freddy for me is Pist’anek’s indefatigable energy – the episodes detailing life among the Junjan trappers are serious and detailed – and his Rabelaisian bravura. There also remains the inextinguishable and revolting Freddy who, in the trilogy’s most grotesquely hilarious comeuppance, has his eye poked out while pursuing his hobby of molesting young women on the Bratislava–Nová Ves railway line, and then seeks an end to his miserable life in Junja only to find comradeship among the arctic Slovaks and become the leader of their new nation, “a substitute for the Meccano set that he never got from his parents as a child”.

Reckless and brutally comic, a ferocious satire-fleuve of exhilarating vision, the Rivers of Babylon trilogy lives up to all its promise: beginning in prediction, like the best kind of alternative history it ends in confirmation that our world is nothing if not a never-ending parable of absurdity.

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