Monday, 12 April 2010

A Wooden Village in a Concrete Jungle: Slovakia

If there is a theme running through the past few books that I have covered in my trip through the Balkans and some ‘former East European’ states it is this: there is a world of difference between the relatively poor lives of the main populaces in these countries and the luxurious prospects promised them by the West (a luxury which, of course, also eludes many in the West itself). This is artificially reinforced in these places by imported fictional US television programmes and the riches associated with the local Mafia who have thrived in the post-Communist era in these benighted countries.

It is notable that all of the recent books that I have encountered depict ordinary, relatively decent, but disillusioned people against a backdrop of impoverishment and threats from local, newly-entrepreneurial ‘Mafia’ gangs who are exploiting the political, social and economic confusions of their newly ‘liberated’ nations for personal financial gain through criminal activity. In simple terms: for a lot of ordinary citizens, fear of the state has been replaced by fear of their more immediate society.

The next step on my World Trip is “The Wooden Village” by Peter Pišt'anek, set in Bratislava in the newly independent Slovakia of the 1990s. This is the second in Pišt'anek’s “Rivers of Babylon” trilogy, but serves perfectly well as a standalone novel: the main protagonist of the first book being relegated to a minor character here. Whilst broadly fitting the above description, the main protagonists presented in this work could hardly be described as ordinary or relatively decent…

These characters are an odd bunch, and they go to some extremes to get by. One couple makes their money by charging for the use of the public toilet they watch over – which is also where they sleep at night. They also make money during the day cleaning tables for an outdoor café bar and its surrounding booths (the ‘wooden village’ of the title). These are located in an underused car park – much to the chagrin of the car park attendant who lives on a trailer on the site, and whose tragicomic back story takes up a significant part of this book. Another is a sex worker who has been saving up money working at a brothel called the Perverts' Club in Austria so she can open up her own bordello catering to those same unusual tastes in Slovakia. Another (a former rock band drummer – as was the author) becomes a fake but much admired and very successful healer. As this healer states to a customer at one point, readers need to just: "Get used to it; nothing's too odd for Slovakia." Or, indeed, for Pišt'anek…

Among the side stories is that of an upper class woman who stumbles into the public toilet, finds herself aroused by her surroundings, and lets herself get pimped out by the couple there. Needless to say, it doesn't work out particularly well (for anyone concerned), but seems analogous for the sordid fall from grace of so much of Slovakian life (and its relatively quick and sad demise).

However, it is all oddly engaging - even despite the brutality and the bizarre sex practises. Indeed, the whole novel and its characters therein seem to operate in a self-contained alternate morality; one that allows you to sympathise (if not empathise) with them, despite their outlandish activities. Often Pišt'anek seems to be making the point that it is the wider society that has driven this people to their actions that is grotesque, rather than the individuals themselves… an interesting (albeit contentious) perspective.

Ultimately the sad fates don't wind up that sad after all, even if things don't go exactly as planned or hoped, and if parts of that are not entirely realistic - a baby gets sold off to some passing foreigners with hardly an afterthought, a man is flung out a sixth-floor window but has a guardian angel to soften the landing - Pišt'anek's aplomb carries almost everything off. Indeed, Pišt'anek displays a remarkable charm and good cheer in relating his stories, and though "The Wooden Village" feels more like a series of vignettes than its stronger predecessor and successor, it is very good fun despite itself. As with the previous work on my trip from Ukraine (“Death and the Penguin”) I shall certainly be seeking out the sequel to this book at the end of my global journey.

I now take my leave of Bratislava and travel to Warsaw in Poland, with Jerry Pilch’s “The Mighty Angel”. I decide to combine travel with a much-needed rest and so make an advance reservation for the daily 22.50 EuroNight overnight train to Warsaw’s rather dilapidated Central train station. Whilst the overnight takes a little longer (8 hours 20 minutes, arriving in Warsaw at 7.10 the next day), it does have the advantage of a reasonably comfortable sleeping car, and access to snacks and drinks if you want them. After a reasonable night’s sleep, I arrive in Poland and make my way the “The Mighty Angel”, the local pub from which the next novel gets its name.

(with thanks to The Complete Review)

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