In 2008 Rivers of Babylon was long-listed for The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. It didn’t make it onto the short list (which, to be fair, contained some very good novels) but did bring to my attention a novel that otherwise I would have been extremely unlikely to have heard of, published by a small university press and by a writer from an unfashionable nation (Slovakia) who had never been translated into English before. Moreover, the cover design made J.D. Salinger appear publicity hungry – although its utilitarian extremism did make it stand out among the positively whorish paperbacks that surrounded it when I found a copy in a bookshop in Glasgow. Needless to say, I read it, and so found myself introduced to an entertaining writer and a monstrous anti-hero, Racz. Since then, both sequels have also appeared in English: The Wooden Village and The End of Freddy.
Although Racz reappears in The Wooden Village, he no longer overshadows the world of the novel. Though even more powerful than when we last saw him, he is only an occasional presence. Instead the novel (as its title suggests) utilises a larger cast, including a number of characters that also appeared in Rivers of Babylon. It would be fair to say that Pist’anek does not distribute the narrative among the characters equally, and while the first half of the novel focuses on Feri and Erzika, in the second half Freddy dominates and, by the end, is clearly the novel’s most interesting character. (I can only assume that the author agrees with me considering the title of the final part of the trilogy). Other characters are also important, however, particularly those returning to Slovakia to enjoy its market economy: Silvia, who returns from Austria to set up a brothel, and Martin Junec, who is visiting from America, hoping to establish a European base for his lighting company.
The writer Pist’anek most resembles, to my mind, is Irvine Welsh, with more sex (though less explicit), a similar amount of alcohol, and less in the way of drugs. The main plotline of the first half of the novel begins when a bored housewife (who remains anonymous) is sexually excited by the “penetrating stench of male urine” in the men’s toilets, to the point that she immediately offers to work there in return for a place to sleep. Instead of undertaking her cleaning duties, however, she:
“…stands above the urinal and takes deep breaths of the ammonia fumes from men’s urine. Her right hand can’t help slipping under her miniskirt, into her crotch. Her excitement knows no bounds.”
Within minutes she is offering herself to a drunken customer. This unlikely fantasy, however, is used by Pist’anek to satirise the free market. The woman, named Lady, is exploited by Erzika, the toilet attendant, and her husband, Feri, servicing drunk after drunk to their enrichment until it literally kills her. Later, Feri sells his own baby for a few thousand marks, telling his wife she has been kidnapped. It is this satirical black humour that makes the novel more than simply entertainment. Like Welsh, Pist’anek presents these characters in their unredeemed awfulness without entirely repulsing the reader. We may not like them, but we almost admire their straight forward lack of moral complications.
Freddy, the car park attendant, is involved in Lady’s story from the beginning: he provides her with a place to sleep in his trailer (in return for money and the right to sleep with her) and later escorts men to visit her. There is an almost tender scene on the first night she stays with him as he lies awake all night watching her sleep using “all his willpower not to masturbate” (It’s about as tender as the novel gets). As the novel progresses, Freddy becomes increasingly important. Throughout Pist’anek reveals the story of Freddy’s childhood in short scenes which elicit some sympathy. Two incidents stand out: the first, when the money he is saving to buy a dingy is taken by his parents to pay for his first communion suit; secondly when he builds himself a bicycle as all his friends have one and he can no longer play with them – but by the time he has built it his friends have moved on, and he throws it away. Both suggest a stifled desire for freedom. They are accompanied by some unfortunate sexual experiences which mean that when later in the novel he discovers his dream job, it is as a slave in a sadomasochistic brothel where he works for the woman who first tortured him as a girl. His story ends happily, though it is a happiness revealed in the sentence:
“Sida briefly, but painfully, presses his scrotum.”
By now you may have some idea if this novel is for you. It is certainly as entertaining as many that are more conventionally published, and an interesting (though no doubt not entirely accurate) insight into Slovak society. I look forward to the third part of the trilogy – and Freddy’s final fate.