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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Rivers of Babylon

Peter Pišt'anek

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Rivers of Babylon

Title: Rivers of Babylon
Author: Peter Pišt'anek
Genre: Novel
Written: 1991 (Eng. 2007)
Length: 259 pages
Original in: Slovakian
Availability: Rivers of Babylon - US
Rivers of Babylon - UK
Rivers of Babylon - Canada
Rivers of Babylon - France
  • Slovakian title: Rivers of Babylon
  • Rivers of Babylon was made into a film in 1998, directed by Vlado Balco and starring Andrej Hryc as Rácz

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Our Assessment:

A- : creative post-Communist romp

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Independent . 25/1/2008 Julian Evans
The Telegraph . 29/3/2008 Tibor Fischer
TLS A 29/2/2008 Tim Beasley-Murray

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Slovak Peter Pist'anek's Rivers of Babylon was written as Communism was collapsing and first published in Slovakia in 1991. It was a bombshell of a satire on both socialism and capitalism, a gangster novel high on the fumes of comic amorality, an anti-fable, a full-blown fairytale-nasty. It foretold a significant phase of Europe's post-Communist future and should have been seized for translation as fast as an alert British publisher could acquire the rights; as fast, say, as with Patrick Süskind's Perfume. Instead, 17 years later a tiny university-backed publisher has brought out a small edition in a loving translation. It sold out within a week of its publication last month, and Garnett Press is reprinting. We are a slow lot. (...) So acquire this novel by any means -- and be delighted when you're through reading it that there are another two volumes still to come." - Julian Evans, The Independent

  • "Less Dostoyevsky and more Tom Sharpe, Pišt'anek has written an entertaining comic novel that, along with Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan, is the best fiction I've read on the "wild west" period. Unlike Shteyngart, though, Pišt'anek is particularly good on the forest floor, where the unimportant citizens fight to survive or make a few bucks here or there. I get the feeling Pišt'anek wrote Rivers of Babylon in a rush and it could use several editorial snips, but it's still better than half the novels published by the literary imprints." - Tibor Fischer, The Telegraph

  • "This is far more than a post-Communist bestseller. It combines rigorous plotting with equally rigorous humour and absurd satire. (...) Pišt'anek's novel has changed Slovak literature beyond recognition. (...) Rivers of Babylon, which is a worthy heir to Rabelais, Balzac and Gogol, has become the second-best-selling Slovak novel of all time." - Tim Beasley-Murray, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Brilliantly translated from Slovak by Peter Petro, this story of a small-town loser turned enterprising bravura gangster in post-communist Slovakia is fuelled with formidable energy and ice-cool satire. It displays a fierce black humour that is both ruthless and exhilarating." - William Boyd, The Guardian (24/11/2007)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Rivers of Babylon is set in the time of the collapse of communism in eastern Europe, in then still unified Czechoslovakia beginning to make the transition to free market democracy but not getting much beyond the free-for-all stage yet. Then novel centres on country bumpkin Rácz, and begins when he asks for the hand of the local butcher's daughter in their small town. He has a bit of property, and a pig, a cow, and a horse, but it's not enough for the butcher: Rácz has to have some cash, too, and so Rácz sets out for the big city -- Bratislava -- to earn some money and then claim his bride.
       The not very worldly Rácz lucks into a job almost as soon as he reaches town. Donáth has been the boiler-room stoker at the Hotel Ambassador for decades, and he finally wants to retire -- but he's promised to find a replacement. Strong Rácz looks like he could be a man for the job -- and with its two salaries it sounds tempting. It's a full-time job that wouldn't leave him much free time, but that's all right: "he came here for the money and nothing else interests him.".
       Donáth shows Rácz the ropes and all the necessary tricks -- and notes that the various employees and others in the hotel are often willing to show their appreciation when the heat is working properly. Rácz couldn't seem to care less:

All he wants to do is start making money. This world is of no interest to him; it's useful only to get him into his own world as soon as possible. He'll crawl into his boiler-room and crawl out when he's ready to travel back with his money.
       But as soon as he's finished his apprenticeship and Donáth has packed up and left Rácz in charge, Rácz sees how much power he has in his hands. When the hotel manager docks him his pay he's furious -- but finds that by regulating the heat he's soon in complete control. Guests and employees shower him with goods and money to get their radiators functioning (with only the manager obstinately refusing to kowtow to the stoker), and soon Rácz is raking it in hand over fist. Soon enough he's also involved in the black market and money-changing, and has more dealings with a variety of the other characters in and around the hotel.
       Everyone is out to make a quick buck: the women prostituting themselves, the parking-lot protection racket, the currency-speculators. Part of Rácz's success is that he's ambitious but not pettily greedy. And while: "Rácz is no genius, he's rather simple-minded, but he can learn quickly, like a chimpanzee." And learn he does, with a casual indifference (and some brute strength) that stands in contrast to all the over-thought maneuverings of almost all the others with their grand plans and ambitions.
       The Hotel Ambassador is a microcosm of Slovakia. As one of the foreign guests -- taking advantage of the cheap sex available here -- notes:
This small nation with its artificially hypertrophied and incomprehensible national pride is a nation of geniuses misunderstood and unrecognized by the rest of the world, he feels. They all believe that they're better than they seem at first sight. The young hustler and unlicensed taxi driver thinks he is an artist. The blonde whore never fails to stress that she was originally a ballet dancer. [...] This is a nation of the undersestimated, it occurs to Hurensonn. They could have given the world some of the most brilliant artists, ballet dancers, and scientists -- at least that's what they claim. Why didn't they -- that's the question ?
       Part of the answer is demonstrated by Rácz's rise. He's able to turn the tables on pretty much everyone, whether it's the gypsies who want to rob him -- who wind up stoking the boilers for him, so that he can move into the hotel proper -- or the hotel lawyer, who has designs on a take-over of his own. The one who ostensibly is in charge, the manager, is instead increasingly isolated, an island in his own hotel without heat or food, a pariah who missed the boat when the tides of change came and can't deal with that situation.
       Rácz's indiscriminate use of power proves just a different form of totalitarianism. There are opportunities, of sorts, for many under the new system, but only a few really have power, Rácz among them. For most the rewards are just small-time -- and often come at a high personal cost. Meanwhile, by the end of the novel (the first in a trilogy) the previously state-owned hotel is being privatized and Rácz rigs that so easily that he gets it -- and much more -- for a song (one which Austrian banks are more than willing to subsidize).
       The system -- whatever it it may be, pseudo-communism as before, or pseudo-capitalism as is the case now -- is easily abused, and almost everyone plays along with that, shifting with the wind. Rácz seems the most powerful figure, and so they all follow his lead (and admittedly the few challenges he faces are repelled so forcefully that it's not that hard to see why most simply toe the line), but clearly Pišt'anek finds them complicit in their own failure: they are part of their own undoing. Basically everyone is like the women who prostitute themselves as long as they can, even as all they hope for is to land a Western husband: the quick, easy cash is too much of a temptation to bother with much morality. In his ruthless way Rácz is among the few who is at least true to himself. He really doesn't give a damn -- but the cost to those around him is, of course, high.
       Rivers of Babylon is a dark sort of satire, with a slightly bitter taste to most of it, but it is satire, and enjoyably amusing at that. Parts are exaggerated -- so also the desperation everyone shows when there's no heat -- and there's some jarring brutality, but it all fits with Rácz's rise from country bumpkin to nouveau-riche magnate, as he stomps his way to the top without ever becoming more refined. It's a wry picture of the new eastern Europe, often too close for comfort even in its absurder twists, and it's an entertaining read. Certainly worthwhile -- and leaves one very eager to read the (still untranslated) next volumes in the trilogy.

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Rivers of Babylon: Reviews: Rivers of Babylon - the film: Peter Pišt'anek: Other books by Peter Pišt'anek under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Slovakian author Peter Pišt'anek was born in 1960 and died in 2015.

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