Thursday, October 23, 2014

Book 160, Slovakia: "Rivers of Babylon" by Peter Pišt'anek

Boy oh boy. See, when I first started looking for books on Slovakia, I got referred to US author Michael Genelin’s detective novel Siren of the Waters, and the memoirs of Alexander Dubček (who is a Slovak politician, but who is known for having engineered the Prague Spring in the present-day Czech Republic, which was then of course part of Czechoslovakia).

But then I goofed around on Amazon and found this: 

(This is not the Amazon cover, mind you. It's from this site. But the Amazon cover is BORING, and I give myself a lot of leeway when I read from the Kindle.)

That guy on the cover is our protagonist, Rácz, who starts off as a penniless orphaned ex-soldier and farmer's son, who vows to leave the village and return as a rich man after seeking his fortune in Bratislava.

When he gets to Bratislava, he just so happens to encounter the stoker of a grand hotel - the Hotel Ambassador, a SIX-storey building (wow wow wow) who's about to retire after milking the corrupt Communist system of hiring more workers than necessary in the basement to supply the central heating. And so he takes over, learning how the century-old pipes work, shovelling coal and turning valves to keep the hotel warm.

But it's 1989, the time of the Velvet Revolution (which was what they called it in the Czech Republic - in Slovakia that called it the Gentle Revolution), and that means the whole Communist system of governance in coming apart. And that leaves room for the bad-asses to take power.

So when the hotel manager decides to punish Rácz for daring to enter the hotel by its front door in his dirty worker's overalls and boots - well, our scruffy underdog takes charge and starts turning off the heating in everyone's rooms. And this is Eastern Europe, with autumn settling into winter, so it HURTS.

Up to now, we've had something like a realist novel. But here, things take a slide into the magically real, because not only does Rácz manage to force everyone, from the cooks and the maids and the cabaret girls and the drivers and every single tourist and travelling businessman to bribe him into turning on their radiators, receiving gifts of soup and sex and Chivas Regal (which he pronounces as hee-vas ree-gal, of course) - but he actually starts climbing the social ladder, earning the respect and power through his ruthlessness that the manager never really had, and the poor old manager is reduced to starving and shivering frostbitten in his office - and yes, it gets weirder from there on.

This is a fun book. Thrilling. Socially insightful. It skips perspectives from character to character, so we get a pretty wide range of Slovakian society - there's Video Urban, the wannabe video artist-cum-currency exchanger-cum-taxi driver; Freddy Piggybank, the fat loser everyman parking lot attendant who goes spectacularly mad; Silvia, the wannabe ballet dancer-cum-cabaret girl-cum-kept woman who lives only for money; her girlfriend Edita (who's bisexual, and pretty hot for Silvia's undies, in fact); the Lawyer who tries to jockey Rácz for power; the former Secret Police Officers who're trying to stay relevant in this age of change through abusing their old warrants... And damn, crazy shit goes down.

All while you can pat yourself on the back for urbanely researching post-Communist Eastern Europe! Hurrah! (Shades of Alaa-Al-Aswany's The Yacoubian Building from Egypt, which I'd also recommend.)

What makes this all the more remarkable is that Pišt'anek's style was unprecedented in Slovakia - their literature previously made them out to be "a nation of wise bee-keepers and virtuous matriarchs", according to the preface. Damned if this isn't more fun to read. And there are sequels, too!

(Trigger warnings for anti-Gypsy racism and rape, though. Our underdog becomes more than an antihero; maybe something of a monster.)

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote: Hurrenson found out about the existence of this nation only because of its ridiculously cheap prostitutes, willing to put up with anything that doesn't leave visible traces. Only then did he find out from the residents of this nation about the apparently famous artists, astronomers, and inventors whom he'd never heard of before. But so far Hurrenson has only been able to meet cheap whores, black market hustlers, arrogant waiters and taxi drivers, lazy room-maids and venal policeman. However, Hurrenson does not condemn anyone outright. He believes that the milieu in which he circulates as a bisexual tourist has shaped his opinion. 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 Hurrenson has never yet met such people, nor even found a trace of their existence.

Next book: Franz Kafka's The Castle, from the Czech Republic.

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