A couple of months ago, Robert Buckeye reviewed Peter Pistanek’s Rivers of Babylon, a novel about Racz, a stoker in the Hotel Ambassador whose power quickly expands when he realizes that “he who puts the heat on can control things.”
To follow up on this review, Robert Buckeye—who has had two works of fiction published, Pressure Drop and The Munch Case, and has written on film and art as well as literature—interviewed Pistanek about his work, his influences, and his experiences as a drummer.
(The interview with Pistanek was conducted by e-mail in Bratislava at the end of June and early July of this year and revised at the end of August. At the conclusion of the interview we met for drinks. I should have taken notes, but did not bring a notebook. In any event, I considered it inappropriate for the wide-ranging talk we had.)
Robert Buckeye: Your work has been compared to Rabelais, Gogol, the Thomas Mann of Felix Krull. Is this comparison valid?
Peter Pistanek: I am not sure such comparisons are useful, but, on the other hand, it is enjoyable to hear them. Maybe those who compare my writing to those giants find some common qualities — some special kind of irony, sense of absurdity, and certain picturesque qualities. I would exclude Rabelais, whose work I do not know well. Gogol, yes. He is still an inspiration. I like Mann’s Felix Krull, but his brother Heinrich’s novel, Professor Unrat, (some remember it was filmed as “The Blue Angel”), was a much bigger influence and inspiration for me.
RB: Do you look back to them for influence or forward to what is written today? Among contemporary writers who do you see as an influence?
PP: Literature in German. Franz Kafka, Elias Canetti, Alfred Doblin. And then American literature. Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road was it for me. Everything by Joseph Heller. Going After Cacciato, A Confederacy of Dunces, Invisible Man. Alan Arkin, whom I respect not only as an underrated actor but also as a great director, was an inspiration, especially his movies, “Little Murders” and “Fire Sale.” Roman Polanski. Everything he did as a director until the eighties. Among contemporary directors Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Of course, they’re not novelists, but a writer’s inspiration does not only come from books. Alan Moore and Kevin’s O’Neill’s graphic novel, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Or the works of the contemporary Russian writer, Viktor Pelevin.
RB: You mention no Slovak writers. Why?
PP: I thought those names would not be familiar to a Western reader. I can mention my dear late friend, Rudolf Sloboda, the greatest contemporary Slovak writer. Ladislav Ballek, who has not written much lately, because he has been busy as the Slovak Ambassador in Prague. Dusan Mitana, the giant of magic realism the Slovak way. Jan Kresadlo, the greatest contemporary Czech writer (the father of Oscar winning director, Jan Pinkava). Some Slovak writers from the first half of the twentieth century: Timrava, Kukucin, Tajovsky, Jilemnicky, Minac, Ondrejov. In my early writing, I parodied them a lot.
RB: Are these writers available in English translation? If they are not, why do you think they have not been translated?
PP: I have no idea why they have not. Some Eastern nations and literatures have become fashionable in the West (Hungarian? Russian? Albanian?), but Slovaks do not seem to qualify. Perhaps we are not as exotic. Not “Eastern” enough. Slovaks eat the same meals as the West, wear the same clothes, listen to the same music, have similar architecture. Our kings and emperors were close relatives to those in Western Europe. We are too much like the West to be interesting.
RB: Is The Good Soldier Schweik an influence?
PP: Definitely yes. I’ve read the book at least 20 times. It is one of the so-called influenza books. Once every few years a bout of influenza will pin me to my bed and I will read it once more.
RB: No women writers?
PP: This is not an affirmative action question, is it? [Laughter.*] I like the Russian writer, Tatyana Tolstoya, whose On Golden Porch, I’ve read more than five or six times. Marie-Claire Blais’s A Season in the Life of Emmanuel was quite a discovery for me. Joyce Carol Oates, Flannery O’Connor, Toni Morrison. Three writers I know personally and like as writers and women: the Austrian Sylvia Treudl, the Dane Lotte Inuk and the British Bernardine Evaristo. We met in 2000 at the Literary Express Europa, the most megalomaniac undertaking I ever took part in, a train full of writers that crossed Europe from Lisbon to St. Petersburg, and then to Berlin, through Minsk and Warsaw in six weeks. We had a good time going from west to east in Europe. Since then I mark my life from the Literary Express Europa. What it was before is different from what it became after.
RB: You read the American novels you mention in English or in translation? How did you come to read the novels that influenced you? You mention, say, no Hemingway, Bellow, Pynchon or Richard Wright.
PP: I’ve read them mostly in translation. I like Hemingway’s short stories and Fiesta, but I hate his pseudo-macho attitude. He was gay, at least mentally, and lacked the balls to come out. A typical, closeted leftist hypocrite. I like Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King and Herzog, but do not consider him an influence. I have yet to discover Pynchon and Wright.
RB: What do you think did Hemingway in as a writer?
PP: What did him in was his narcissistic personality and endogenous depression. He used alcohol to overcome his problems, which is always dangerous. A good psychotherapist would have helped him. He might not write a word again but he would be able to enjoy his life. Writing is always a sign of a certain disorder. The roots of our problems are buried deep in childhood. Open wounds and narcissistic injuries repressed in the subconscious. When Hemingway was depressed, he was not able to write. A good therapist could have helped him, but at a price. His ability to write would have been lost. Not the craft, but the drive would be gone. Happy people have no stories. The trade-off with therapy is that the writer gets his life back. Fuck the writing, they say. I’d rather be happy.
RB: How does your interest in film and the graphic novel influence your writing?
PP: Perhaps the pace of the story. Some readers tell me that my books read like watching a movie. I never describe inner thoughts of my characters. What you see is what you get. As in a movie.
RB: How does your work as a drummer influence your writing?
PP: Not much. Each has its own space and time. There are some exceptions. Between songs during concerts, sometimes I used to tell funny stories to warm up the audience. In the eighties, I wrote a long story called “Muzika,” about a saxophonist. They made a successful movie of the story last year [the film screened at this year’s Karlovy Vary Festival and was reviewed favorably]. The story was not influenced by our band at all. We never played at bars. We wanted to be jazzmen.** Our paradigm was Prince, George Duke, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock (his electric music), Earth Wind & Fire, Level 42.
RB: Do you follow a regular schedule, say, write everyday?
PP: Most of all I write sporadically. I have a family and household to feed. Got to go to the office everyday. If I was able to make a living from writing books, I would write from 5:00 a.m. to eleven and then in the evening from 5 p.m. to 11:00. Between noon and three, I sleep with my eyes open. I am not good for anything, even at the office.
RB: How much, if any, do you revise?
PP: Revision is crucial. I have no difficulty writing a draft of a novel in, say, two months. That is only collecting raw material. Then the REAL writing begins. Cutting, re-cutting, appending, replenishing, remixing, dislocating, balancing may take me four or five years. Only then will the book read smoothly, as if it were spontaneous. Spontaneity in literature is always a matter of hard work. A literature that is written at one dash is always hard to read.
RB: Does revision change the original sense of a book?
PP: No, I do not think so. Revision cleans and polishes it.
RB: Do you look at how other writers have done scenes or handled situations?
PP: Yes, of course. But I do not analyze them. It is a question of intuition.
RB: Let’s talk about Rivers of Babylon, the one book of yours translated into English. Is the argument of the book that the barbarian always wins, as he did against Rome?
PP: You have to see it as a metaphor. The barbarians would not have destroyed Rome, if the Romans hadn’t destroyed it first themselves. There is something suicidal in our civilization, our culture (I mean Euro-Atlantic, Christian-Jewish culture). The barbarian is always brilliant in adjusting to the weakness of his enemy. He makes the best of circumstances. Come to think of it, perhaps I am a barbarian. When I visited America for the first time for a Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown, Kentucky, I think I must acted very much like Borat. Not that I did not know how to use a fork and knife, brush my teeth or flush a toilet, but I was not used to some other details of Western life. Despite the fact that all my family were anti-Communist and pro Western and had relatives in Austria – we watched only Austrian tv and I could see the Schlosshof Castle a half-mile away — I was not prepared for my experience of America. Perhaps I was nothing less than a barbarian trying to get some booty from Rome to take back to my world. To the woods where I belong. I belong to the generation which feels a certain discomfort at the Austrian airport. I envy the young who do not care about such strange feelings.
RB: Do you value Rome?
PP: Yes, if we speak of Rome as a metaphor of the West. I not only value and respect it, but really like it. With its tradition of freedom, conservative values, respect for the individual and history, I appreciate the Western world, deep down in my heart. But I feel I do not belong there. It is not my world.
RB: Is your experience at the Vienna Airport common to your generation? That you do not belong. As a first generation in America whose mother was born in Slovakia, I’ve had that feeling in my hometown.
PP: I do not think it is common. I know those who feel absolutely comfortable in the West. I am curious enough that I enjoy travel. I have no problems and speak comprehensible English and German. I have had no difficulty when I am lost in Paris, Lexington, Kentucky, Sydney, Edinburgh or Lisbon. But I always realize I do not belong there. I always think, “What should I take with me from here to MY world?” When I saw the Borat movie, I said to my wife, “Yes, that was me when I traveled in the USA, France, Scotland and Australia ten years ago!” I was not even conscious of it then. I thought I was part of the Western world, considering my roots, family history, background, my interest in music and television, the view of Austria out my window when I was growing up. I was that naive.
RB: In the novel, a Swede, Hurenssoen, gives a negative reading of Slovaks. Are we to accept his perspective or see it as the necessary one the West must have of the East to insure its superiority. What is your view of the West?
PP: It is a hard question to answer. One word comes to mind: hypocritical. I remember that in the UK they arrested Pinochet at the same time they prepared for the visit of the Chinese president. Why did they not arrest him at the airport after he arrived? Because there is big business with Communist China and human rights must be deferred. Sarkozy acts like a personal friend of the terrorist Gaddafi. Just because they have some dirty business together. Hugs and kisses belong only to friends. A schlockmeister shall accommodate a grubby flimsy.
RB: In the novel, you are savage toward intellectuals. Is it because they always serve power or are, as you say about the father of Racz’s fiancee, parasites?
PP: I have nothing against intellectuals per se. I have some good friends who are intellectuals. I only savage those intellectuals who, as you said, serve power or those from the West who are leftist scum. Cafeteria Bolsheviks. They were responsible for the Western politics of appeasement in the seventies and eighties that kept us in the Communist camp longer. As long as they were at the wheel, we were still stuck behind the Iron Curtain. I hate them because they helped the Communist scum to steal my youth.
RB: In Germany, they have a term, ostalgie, a certain nostalgia for the East German experiment that failed. Its promise, though hardy realized, nevertheless offered more than capitalism. Are those cafeteria Bolsheviks?
PP: No. I mean Western intellectuals, who never had any personal experience living under Communism, behind the barbed wire fence, as I was born to and lived under until I was 29. Ostalgic “Ossies” are just plain stupid, but those Westerners who call for Communist regimes are criminals. I could never understand why Picasso was a member of the French Communist party. In doing so, he gave Stalin and his hangmen credibility. He never had to live in the “paradise on Earth” they made for us here. He kicked the bucket at Cote Azure in France, the nicest part of the whole Mediterranean. This is typical of cafeteria Bolsheviks: to honor Marxist-Leninist theories and, at the same time, exploit living in the free world.
RB: There is much that is comic in the novel, which is one reason why reviewers mention Rabelais and Gogol. What is the reaction of Slovak readers to its comic elements?
PP: I think a certain part of Slovak and Czech readers (and readers generally) love that special kind of absurd humor, which is characteristic for sketches and movies of Monty Python or, say, Mel Brooks’s movies, full of contextual notes. I target these readers.
RB: The title of the book, Rivers of Babylon, seems to have obvious significance. It is Babylon you describe. Is there something more to the title?
PP: There are, of course, the historical references of Babylon as a metaphor of chaos and decadence, but the title, Rivers of Babylon was also a stupid song from the eighties by a group called Boney M. I hated it, so I made it a favorite song of Racz’s, the books’ central villain. The title was the last thing I did finishing the book. It had no working title during the seven years I was writing it (1983-1990). At the end, I was desperate, but the title came, as usual, in sleep.
RB: You prefer writing to playing music?
PP: It is simply the only trade I know how to do well. I also use it in my civil service job. I write user manuals, case studies, annual reports. If I had been a good photographer, ballet dancer, sculptor, lawyer or chef, I certainly would make my money that way. But I have no practical skills. I don’t even have a driver’s license. Writing is the only thing I can do. Unfortunately. At the same time, thank God!
Robert Buckeye provides us with our latest review, a look at Peter Pistanek’s Rivers of Babylon.
Ortega y Gasset wrote of those who had stepped onto the stage of history and did not belong there. Vertical invaders he called them. Those who had come up from below. Cowboy capitalists and tinhorn dictators who elbowed the nobility, church and founding fathers aside. In Peter Pistanek’s version, the peasant from the countryside, traditionally a slow-witted man of many virtues who slyly outwits city slickers (the revenge of the countryside against the metropolis), becomes Racz, a tsunami, who wipes out everything in his path. The nastiest rat in the shithouse1. Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine writ large. Pistanek blasts away images of Slovaks plowing fields, eating goulash, playing accordions, going to church as First World images, tour bus vistas.
Racz has come to Bratislava to make money so that he can be a suitable suitor for the woman from his village he loves. He gets work as the stoker in the Hotel Ambassador, one of the most prestigious hotels in Bratislava, and in his single-mindedness soon discovers that he can take advantage of his position. People will pay to have the heat on and, in short, Racz learns that he who puts the heat on can control things. He rises quickly from stoker in the Ambassador to its owner and much else. Those who oppose him (small-time money changers, former secret police, professional classes) knuckle under while those whose dreams have foundered in the new world order have to make do or become, like academics, increasingly irrelevant.
“They all believe that they’re better than they seem at first sight,” a Swede, Hurensson, who has come to Bratislava for the sex trade, notes. “The young hustler and unlicensed taxi driver thinks he is an artist. [He becomes a money-changer and pornographer.] The blonde whore never fails to stress that she was originally a ballet dancer. The stooped porter with spidery bony fingers who takes your bags turns out to have been at one time a lecturer at the evening university, now closed, of Marxism-Leninism. He was a philosopher, or so he says. Whatever they do now is only temporary, done out of necessity. The cafe waitress is miserable; no doubt, she originally planned to be an actress. She finds it degrading to serve Hurensson coffee….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?”
“You are nothing unless you have everything,” Greil Marcus writes. “Both Thatcher and Reagan promised everything to anyone with the grace to leave the damned behind,” he adds. If you are not from the First World, however, your everything can never be more than parody (the Eastern Europe syndrome). Racz learns how to use a knife and fork, how to dress, read and go to the opera. He marries a college girl interested in art (she takes him to museums) and lives in a villa with the folks on the hill. He has put his village behind him. It is, if you will, how civilization assimilates those who have risen in its ranks, but to those already there, Racz is still a vertical invader who does not belong. Racz remains Racz.
Just after Racz’s arrival in Bratislava, a woman suffers a nervous breakdown at a tram stop in front of the Hotel Ambassador and begins to strip. “The crowd consists of people all as exhausted, nervous and unhappy as she. Their psychology, however, can cope better with the morning heat. ....Whistles, sarcasms and disparaging comments are heard….The passengers at the tram stop stay excited long after the police car leaves. The extraordinary situation has brought them together, just as a calamity to be overcome brings people together….The latest people have no idea what’s just happened. For them the woman’s high-heel shoe discarded near the rubbish bin has a different symbolic value. The plot’s been lost.” The plot has not been lost. The heat is on Slovakia. The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors2. Breakdown threatens.
The title of Pistanek’s novel (in English in the Slovak edition) refers to Boney M’s hit of 1978. Pistanek himself has been a drummer in a rock band and attended the Bratislava Academy of Performing Arts but did not finish. Only from below, Pistanek suggests, can we see what blinds us, using the language of discredited forms, not those of “the supplicative voice, legitimating power” (The term is Marcus’s). Joyce’s shout in the street. A voice, sound.
1 said of John Travolta in the film, The General’s Daughter.
2 The title of a work by Marcel Duchamps.
The Rivers of Babylon
By Peter Pišťanek
Translated by Peter Petro.
Garnett Press: London, 2007.
259 pgs, £12.99
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