Rivers of Babylon by Peter Pišťanek
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a Horatio Alger story (rags-to-riches) done Slovak style, which is to say it’s decidedly more edgy and gritty than the typical American version would be. The protagonist’s success is not solely the result of hard work and determination, but also a nasty temper, a capacity for brutality, and an unstudied skill for reading and manipulating people (despite a lack of education or intellectual acumen.)
Rácz (the story’s lead) returns home to his village from military service believing that he has a modest inheritance coming his way, only to discover that some members of his extended family absconded with his deceased parent’s savings. The father of Rácz’s sweetheart recommends that Rácz go to the big city [Bratislava] to earn some quick cash because the father can’t very well marry his daughter off to a destitute young farmer. Rácz does go to Bratislava and happens to sit down in a dinner next to an old man who is looking for his own replacement to run the central heating system for a block that is dominated by a high-end hotel catering to foreign visitors as well as some mostly luxury shops and businesses. It’s not a prestigious job, essentially a furnace stoker, but the pay is not bad and most people treat the stoker pretty well because they’re scared of having their heat go out in the winter – except the hotel manager, who is a bully. Rácz has his “Falling Down” moment after being tormented by the Manager, and his burst of anger — and the realization that he can control the hotel and all that’s around it by blackmailing everyone to keep the heat working — starts him down a path that will result in his rise to gangster-king status.
The book is humorous throughout, though it’s largely black humor. As for trigger warnings: the book includes acts of rape and kidnapping. Rácz does have a kind of moral compass, and one does see where his limits lie and the ethical rules he applies, but that moral compass is wildly off-kilter in comparison to most of society. I found the psychology of Rácz and other main characters (e.g. Video Urban, a character who is far more street smart than Rácz, but not as capable of brutality) to be intriguing, and the book offers a vision of what made the Soviet leader’s tick. [The era seems to straddle the fall of Communism as a shift to privatization takes place in the book’s latter half.]
If you’re interested in Slovak literature or gangster literature or both, I’d highly recommend this book.
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