Rivers of Babylon, By Peter Pist'anek, trans. Peter Petro

The man who runs the heating steals the show

Reviewed,Julian Evans
Friday 25 January 2008 01:00
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Nearly 20 years after the Wall came down, it seems that the novels of central and eastern Europe are coming across to us more sluggishly than when it still stood. 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.

The comparison with Perfume is apt. Rácz, the agent of Pist'anek's bombshell, is a brother in obsession to Süskind's Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. Brutalised by poverty, a surly misfit but strong and with "monstrous physical endowment", Rácz leaves his village in the Slovakian countryside to work in the filthy labyrinth of the basement of the Hotel Ambassador as boiler-room stoker. Sullen and stupid, he shuts down the hotel's heating valves in a rage after he is docked a month's pay for a minor breach of discipline. As the hotel cools epiphany strikes.

Guests, kitchen and restaurant staff, shop managers, the dancers in the hotel cabaret, are all willing to pay him to pretend to "fix" their radiators. A business empire is born. Gifts of cash, perfumes and sex accelerate into currency dealing and, after he forces a pair of gypsies into becoming his boiler slaves for trying to steal from him, the effective running of the hotel and all its associated business.

Rácz moves up from the basement to a suite with a river view, from shellsuits to leather jackets and business suits, becoming a paragon of greed and a comic psychopath of Rabelaisian dimensions. Demolishing his competitors by threats, blackmail, bombs, drowning or, in the case of the hotel lawyer, insisting that he cut off his little finger as a sign of loyalty, Rácz's progress is a wonderfully extended and supremely amoral joke.

As Urban, one of his business associates, says, "Rácz is the stupidest and the most limited person I've ever met... But he is incredibly adaptive." And predatory. Urban knows what Rácz wants: everything. "Rácz is a natural catastrophe." Pist'anek has no truck with cultural theory, literary fashion or political correctness. The women in the novel, from the hotel whores to Rácz's prospective mothers-in-law, do not come off well; but the men do not either.

Execrated and adored in his native country, Pist'anek has understood the application of Juvenal's remark, that "in times like these it is difficult not to write satire", to the post-socialist world. I have not read a funnier, more vicious, wicked, truthful or vital satire since Fielding's Jonathan Wild or Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.

Rácz is already well on the way to immortality. And what is satirical is also prophetic. Remember what lies behind Rácz's rise: it is the man who controls access to the heating pipes who will wields the greatest power. On the continent of Europe, who would that be? 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's biography of Norman Lewis, 'The Semi-invisible Man', will be published by Cape in June

Garnett Press £12.99 (259pp) (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

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