Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 14. Nr. Mai 2003

Rivers of Babylon: Peter Pištanek's Novelistic Trilogy

Peter Petro (The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada)


When Peter Pištanek's novel Rivers of Babylon appeared in 1991,(1) it created a sensational and contradictory reaction. For example, parodying Pištanek's style, Ján Beòo in Národná obroda wrote this about Racz, the main character of the novel:

He, Peter Pištanek, did not create Racz out of thin air. Racz was hanging in the air with his story and Pištanek just grabbed him and put him in his novel. They say that the story of the Dead Souls was given to Gogol by Pushkin. But who gave the story to Peter Pištanek? We don't really know. We only know that Rudolf Sloboda gave him a certain amount of self-confidence.(2)

It is hard to receive greater praise than a comparison with Gogol, the seriocomic genius of world literature. Rudolf Sloboda (1938-1995) was a major Slovak twentieth-century novelist who encouraged Pištanek (born in 1960), a young man who, like Sloboda, lived in the same village of Devínska Nová Ves, on the outskirts of Bratislava. But it was not only adulation right from the start. Some critics were apparently quite puzzled by the novel. Thus, Stanislava Chrobáková wrote in Romboid: "If one of the typical signs of folk art is a naïve, that is, a simplified view of the world, and the other sign is a failure to master the technique of one's art, then Pištanek's novel exhibits both of these signs quite definitely."(3)

But Pištanek also gathered critical support from some major critics who understood the new phenomenon. Thus, Milan Jungmann, one of the most influential Czech critics, wrote in Literárny týdeník the following:

Thanks to a recommendation of a friend from Bratislava, I made the acquaintence of an original narrative talent who does not care about the crisis of the novel and simply, naturally, so to say in a traditional manner introduces us to the elements of a suspenseful story. The term "traditional" has to include, of course, a novelistic form of a decidedly postmodernist kind.(4)

Finally, Lajos Grendel, in Slovenské poh¾ady, suggests another, no less impressive, reason for the importance of the novel: "The author managed to achieve an almost impossible feat: to connect an occasionally minutely descriptive realism with a reflection on power in a non-violent, artistically balanced manner and always within the confines of his fictional world."(5)

Today one can say that the book clearly marked the end of a literary epoch as well as the beginning of something new, something that a future literary historian will have to grapple with in the next few years. I would provisionally name this new period in Slovak prose, taking the cue from Jungmann, postmodernism. The novel certainly marked the end of the period of establishment literature. By this term I mean literature produced by writers who were not only approved by the literary establishment or supported by the political establishment, as was the case during the forty years of Communist rule. The term would also include those who worked within an established Slovak literary tradition mindful of the nineteenth-century national revival, who accepted its vision and framework, and who were beholden to the major figures of the Slovak nineteenth and twentieth-century literary canon.

Pištanek is, of course, not unaware of this canon, for he parodies it when he gives his Rivers of Babylon 2 the subtitle Wooden Village, a parodic reference to the socialist realist novel (Wooden Village, Drevená dedina, 1951) by Frantisek Heèko (1905-1960). The "village" of the subtitle is no longer a village undergoing socialist transformation, as in Heèko, but instead a group of wooden booths of enterprising small-time businessmen in the parking lot of a hotel in Bratislava.

One reason for the immediate success of the work was its main character, Racz. This simple village young man with two years of agricultural mechanic's training and a two-year stint in the army comes to Bratislava in search of work. He will become the same day a trainee stoker, servicing the huge boilers in the underground of Bratislava's exclusive hotel Ambassador. He does not look, at first sight, like the hugely successful person he will become by the end of the novel: "He is small and thin, but so boney and angular that he gives impression of a heavy-set man. His ill-fitting suit, wrinkled and glistening on the seat and thighs, his dark face, closely-cropped hair and large transparent ears remind one of an amnestied prisoner" (Rivers 1, 11).

By the end of the book, Racz controls the underworld and owns a vast array of properties, including the Ambassador hotel:

Now Racz is happy and in a good mood. He is doing very well. He succeeds in everything he does. That includes Lenka. A person from his, Racz's, village had not only never had such a girl, but had never even seen one like her. Only on television could they see one. Only as actresses, or models. Yes, Lenka is precisely what he, Racz, needs. And he loves her. Yes, loves her! And her parents? Her parents are kissing his, Racz's, ass, whenever they can. Typical intellectuals: if they have no one to kiss ass for, they get sick. An intellectual always defers to money. Defers to moneyed people. Particularly such intellectuals who own all shit. They have books along the whole wall, packed with nothing but shit. (Rivers 1, 269)

How did Racz make it, from the boiler room stoker to the capo di tutti capi of the Bratislava underground? Here Pištanek's inventiveness and grotesque come to the fore. The stoker controls the heat in the hotel. He soon discovers that people will give him anything to get warm. Exotic dancers offer their bodies, foreign tourists valuable currency, and soon the power shifts from the hotel Manager to the stoker who, unlike the Manager, instinctively knows how to reward loyalty. The story of the Manager who is increasingly isolated ends with his going mad in the cold of his room. He finds a way out by training a pack of dogs to take himon a sled stolen from a childup North, to join the Inuit, whom he has idolized right from his childhood.

Colourful characters, like the Manager, populate the book. There is, for example, Freddie "Piggybank" Meštanek, who makes a living as a private parking lot guard, but when his permit is withdrawn for the winter season, he goes mad and becomes a wild Jeremiah-like prophet of apocalyptic doom, talking about the coming destruction of Babylon. Then there is Video Urban, a failed art theory student, who makes his living as an illegal foreign currency trader, pimp, and porno producer. Then there are the girls: Sylvia and Edita, exotic dancers, occasional prostitutes, and lesbian lovers. Also, Video Urban's hard-to-approach Lenka, a svelte, intelligent beauty who will become Racz's girlfriend and wife. There is also Trucking Wanda and Dripping Eva, a couple of girls who leave their fast life behind to move in with Video Urban.

Freddie and Video Urban re-appear in the next two volumes to play a more substantial role, while Racz, although still in the picture, takes a secondary role. These characters, together with half a dozen of other minor characters, provide the trilogy with continuity in the second as well as in the final volume.

The second volume of the trilogy opens with a report about Racz, who is still doing very well. He is the hook, the reason for the success of the first novel, and so he is not absent from the second or even from the third one. However, the center of gravity of the narrative moves from Racz to Freddie Meštanek. We find out about his childhood in Nová Ves (clearly an autobiographical element here, suggested by the name of the character as well as his native village), about his infatuation with a childhood girl tormentor of his, called Sida, whom he bumps into in the Perverse Club, where she works as a dominatrix and whom he eventually marries at the end of volume two. Thus, both the first and second volumes end in weddings, as is typical of traditional comedies. The third volume ends with the promise of a similar happy end for Video Urban, who, like Freddie in the second volume, blossoms here into a major character. He is also developing spiritually, trying to become a better human being.

There seems to be a well-planned progression in these three novels moving steadily from the cramped space of the hotel's boiler room to a more international setting. Thus, in the second novel the author provides us with a look at the United States, where a former musician and now successful entrepreneur Martin Junec meets Dr. Edna Gerschwitz, an anthropologist specializing in the mating habits of Pacific island tribes. It is in Polynesia that Junec proposes and is accepted by Gerschwitz. In the third novel we get a further progression, where the story follows the journeys of both Freddie and Video Urban away from Bratislava to Prague. They finally end up and meet quite surprisingly in Djundja.

Djundja is a superb invention that invests the trilogy with a significance far beyond the original story of getting rich and influential in Bratislava. The name ,Djundja" stands for a group of islands in the Northern Pacific, very rich in oil, and inhabited by a Slovak ethnic majority oppressed by the minority of the aboriginal population. Slovaks are resisting, having formed the Slovak National Front of Liberation. They are helped from abroad by the Czechs, whose Royal Czech Navy submarines ferry weapons to the embattled Slovaks.

Slovaks living in Djundja were not resisting very well until command of the liberation movement was taken over by the mysterious and brilliant commander Telgarth, who turns out to be none other than Freddie ,Piggybank" Meštanek, the former parking guard from Rivers 1, later porno producer, and finally the Emperor of the Slovak Archipelago, Telgarth I. At this successful conclusion we meet again with the irrepressible Racz:

[After the victory] the Czechs find themselves in a very difficult situation in the Slovak Archipelago. From the diplomatic point of view, it is impossible to deal with the Emperor Telgarth. He stubbornly insists that all the Czech soldiers leave the territory of the Slovak Archipelago. He does not accept any argument. It seems, all the treaties were signed by other people, not Telgarth. The role of the spokesperson is taken over by a man who has the Emperor's absolute confidence, namely Racz. He knows how to deal with the Czechs. He did his military service in Bohemia in an artillery regiment. He, Racz, was a model soldier. He's got the Czechs figured out. All they need to be happy is a little bit of beer and a little bit of coffee.

And because the Djundja Oil has in the meantime signed strategic contracts with France, Spain, Italy, China, and Japan, the Czechs are afraid of an international scandal and they leave the scene without fighting.

Telgarth I promotes Racz to dukedom and makes the parliament, full of obedient and stupid fishermen, hunters, and herdsmen, elect Racz the Prime Minister of the Slovak Empire. (Rivers 3, 271-273)

Racz managed to get to this high position by using his unerring intuition that commanded him to sell all his assets in Slovakia and move to Djundja at the right time. There he invested his money in the Djundja Oil enterprise, knowing that for a country to become of interest or to become respectable, some oil deposits are never a handicap. In fact, it is more of an insurance and guarantee of friendship by the great powers.

A further unusual aspect of the third volume of the trilogy is that it is bilingual, since the parts of the novel dealing with the Royal Czech Navy and the action that transpires in Prague are written in Czech. This by no means makes the understanding of these sections problematic for the Slovak readers, as they all probably read as much Czech as they do Slovak.

The original success of the first novel was such that it was adapted to film.(6) However, the film became politicized, because of the attempt by the new government to deny the funds already promised by the funding agency.(7) The author, who produced a screenplay, which was heavily cut, was not happy with the result. As Andrew J. Horton reports,

When he [Pištanek] agreed to collaborate on the screenplay, he envisaged a cross between Delicatessen, Pulp Fiction and Monty Python with "lots of crazy dialogues and bizarre situations." Indeed he expresses admiration for writers such as Kafka, Hasek and, in particular, German authors, who for him have an "overdeveloped sense of absurdity."(8)

Nevertheless, however estranged from the much more interesting original, the film stands on its own, as many not so faithful adaptations do.

Finally, it is not the admirable inventiveness and originality of the only trilogy written in that decade that makes this work so remarkable. Rather, it is the new life, the new emergent society, and the totally unexpected developments that the book captures so remarkably. The readers identify the characters they meet here and laugh at them together with the author, whose at times understanding, at times satirical posture made it the seriocomic masterpiece of twentieth-century Slovak literature. After all, the trilogy goes a long way toward explaining such phenomena as the rise of the criminal class, its modus operandi, and its connections with the fledgling democratic political parties. It also throws light on the uncritical embrace of the Western pseudo-culture represented by the porno industry, which found the post-communist countries that turned against all kinds of censorship an easy prey with willing collaborators. And yet, this at first sight rather mercilessly cynical work does not lack transcendence. The spirit of Zofré, Martin Junec's dead friend, appears at key times to warn and save Junec. Hruskoviè, another friend of Junec believes he is fooling his patients, when he sets up a clinic, where, as a psychic healer, he cures the vulnerable sick and ends up really healing them, as he actually does possess a magical healing power. These elements of the magical and otherwordly add to the complexity of this trilogy and compensate for the vulgarity of life depicted there.

Peter Pištanek vowed never to write any more prose.(9) We must hope that he really does not mean it. I certainly hope that his talent and fertile imagination will in due time produce another work that his readers at home and abroad will enjoy as much as they enjoyed the trilogy.

© Peter Petro (The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada)

TRANSINST       Inhalt / Table of Contents / Contenu: No.14


(1) Peter Pištanek, Rivers of Babylon (Bratislava: Archa, 1991). Henceforth referred to as to Rivers 1. The other volumes of the trilogy will be referred to as Rivers 2 and Rivers 3. They were published as: Rivers of Babylon 2 alebo Drevená dedina (Bratislava: Champagne Avantgarde, 1994); and Rivers of Babylon 3 alebo Fredyho koniec. (Bratislava: Film Service Slovakia, 1999).

(2) Ján Beòo, Národná obroda.

(3) Stanislava Chrobáková, Romboid.

(4) Milan Jungmann, Literární týdeník.

(5) Lajos Grendel, Slovenské poh¾ady.

(6) Directed by Vlado Balco, the film Rivers of Babylon was released in 1998.

(7) See Andrew James Horton, "Slovakia Discovered (Part II): Vlado Balco's Rivers of Babylon," Central Europe Review, 30 November 1998, online:

(8) Andrew J. Horton, "Rivers of Babylon: A Slovak film with international resonance," The New Presence, April 1999, online:

(9) In conversations with me, on numerous occasions, claiming he cannot afford it.

For quotation purposes - Zitierempfehlung:
Peter Petro (Vancouver, Canada): Rivers of Babylon: Peter Pištanek's Novelistic Trilogy. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 14/2002.

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