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

Comments are disabled for this article.


The Rivers of Babylon
By Peter Pistanek
Translated by Peter Petro
Reviewed by Robert Buckeye
We're Not Here to Disappear
We're Not Here to Disappear by Olivia Rosenthal
Reviewed by Megan C. Ferguson

Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .

Read More >

The Queen's Caprice
The Queen's Caprice by Jean Echenoz
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .

Read More >

French Concession
French Concession by Xiao Bai
Reviewed by Emily Goedde

Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .

Read More >

Anna Karenina
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .

Read More >

The Cold Song
The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann
Reviewed by David Richardson

Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .

Read More >

This Life
This Life by Karel Schoeman
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .

Read More >

A Dilemma
A Dilemma by Joris-Karl Hyusmans
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .

Read More >