Rivers of Babylon by Peter Pišťanek

Rivers of Babylon by Peter Pišťanek (pronounced pishtyanek, apparently) is a caustic satirical novel set in a big hotel in Bratislava, now the capital of Slovakia but then in Czechoslovakia, at the time of the collapse of the communist government. It has a cast of prostitutes, black-market money changers, former secret policemen and sex tourists.

The anti-hero of the novel is Rácz, who starts out stoking the boilers the hotel, but ruthlessly fights his way up the food chain. The introduction suggests that ‘Rácz will prove as immortal a rogue as Fielding’s Jonathan Wild, Gogol’s Chichikov or Thomas Mann’s Felix Krull’. I’d only add that ‘rogue’ seems too mild a word for a character as brutal as Rácz.

The comparison that sprang to mind for me (and I should probably be more careful of these comparisons to half-remembered books I read more than a decade ago) was A Confederacy of Dunces. It has something of the extravagantly grotesque quality that I remember Toole’s book having. Rivers of Babylon was published in 1991, so it was absolutely topical at the time, and it has the real edge of satire written in response to dramatic current events.

This translation by Peter Petro was published in 2007 by Garnett Press, a small press set up by the Russian Department at Queen Mary, University of London. Rivers of Babylon is the first book in a trilogy, and apparently they hope to publish the other two books ‘soon’. I imagine that it’s an uncertain business trying to publish on that scale, but I for one would certainly pick up the sequel if I got the chance.

Rivers of Babylon is my book for Slovakia for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo, Square in Bratislava, is © Rob & Lisa Meehan, and used under a CC Attribution licence.


My Father’s Notebook by Kader Abdolah

Kader Abdolah left Iran as a political refugee, having been part of a leftist political party that opposed first the Shah and then the ayatollahs. He has lived in the Netherlands since 1988 and My Father’s Notebook is actually a translation (by Susan Massotty) from Dutch. Despite that, I’m counting it for Iran for the Read The World challenge.

The story is narrated by a Iranian political refugee living in the Netherlands, who tells the story of his father, a deaf-mute carpet mender, over the period that includes the coming of the Shahs and the Islamic revolution. I guess we have to assume that there is an element of autobiography here, but I have no idea how much. The book combines a nostalgia for an apparently simpler time, before the politics of Iran got so messy, with a portrayal of a family, and particularly a father-son relationship, caught up in dangerous politics.

I found it weirdly insubstantial. I whipped through it in a couple of days, and found it likeable enough, but not much more than that. Easy to read, easy to forget. It has a kind of sub-magical realism thing going on: not much actual magic, but a certain dwelling on the colourful and peculiar. Perhaps that’s why it didn’t particularly grab me. Or perhaps I just wasn’t in the mood.

» The image, ‘Some Iranian patterns…’, is © François Bouchet and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.


Independent People by Halldór Laxness

Halldór Laxness was an Icelandic novelist (and, incidentally, winner of the Nobel Prize). Independent People was published in 1935, and this translation by J. A. Thompson was written in the 40s. It’s the story of Bjartur, a stubborn, misanthropic sheep-farmer grinding out a primitive existence in hostile conditions, and obsessed with the idea of being independent.

sheep on flickr

It’s not what you’d call a cheerful novel, though it does have its share of dark satirical humour, as when the city-born lady of the manor goes around explaining to all the local peasants about the nobility and happiness of the farmer’s life. It reminded me a bit of Thomas Hardy; both the tinge of gloom that hangs over it, and the theme of creeping modernity in an agricultural community.

The main reason I read it was to tick off Iceland for the Read The World challenge, and it has a powerful sense of place: the dark winters, with the family snowed in for weeks at a time; the redshanks, plovers and wild ducks returning to breed in spring; the folklore and poetry; the sense of remoteness from the rest of the world. And while it made me very glad not to be a peasant sheep farmer, it did quite make me want to visit Iceland, if only to see the phalaropes.

I’m glad I read it; it’s a proper, major novel, and I enjoyed it. Fair warning, though; my mother, who I borrowed it from, clearly found it a bit of a chore, and I can see why. It’s 550 pages, and even though I liked it, it felt like quite a long 550 pages.

» The photo, Sheep, is © Atli Harðarson and used under a Creative Commons by-nd licence.


Black Stone by Grace Mera Molisa

One for the Read The World challenge. Wikipedia only mentions one writer from Vanuatu: Grace Mera Molisa. There was a copy of Black Stone, her first book of poems, for sale on AbeBooks, so I thought I’d give it a punt.

This is political poetry: Black Stone was published in 1983, just three years after Vanuatu gained independence, and the main dynamics of the book are anti-colonialism and feminism.

If the aim of the challenge is to get some sense of different places around the world, then this book isn’t ideal. It largely deals with politics in the abstract, and aside from a few place-names it would be difficult to guess where it was written. I have no more idea of the landscape or everyday life of Vanuatu than I did before I read it. But then I don’t think I’m the target audience.

I’m not terribly excited by it as poetry either; most of it reads as political prose broken up rather arbitrarily into short  lines. This is from a poem called Newspaper Mania:

The medium
of Newsprint
can make
and break
and men
in dictating
and shaping
public opinion
by subtle
and invisible

There are occasionally hints of something more interesting, though; from the same poem, I think this has a fine acid touch to it:

flock to Port Vila
crawling the bars
sniffing the farts
of other
transient scavengers
and go away
on Vanuatu politics. 

Despite  few good moments, the book mainly reads to me as social activism rather than poetry. Not that I have anything against social activism.


Read the world: a map

I’ve made an interactive map to show which countries I’ve read books from.

Short version: I’ve read books from the countries marked blue or green, but not the ones marked yellow or red.

Blue are books I had already read before starting the challenge.
Green are books read since starting the challenge. Red is for countries I haven’t read yet; a black dot means a country I have an idea for.
Yellow is for countries where I have a copy of the book waiting to be read.


We killed Mangy-Dog by Luis Bernardo Honwana

We killed Mangy-Dog & other Mozambique stories is one for the reading around the world challenge and also for the African Reading Challenge. I came across it when I was browsing through my bookshelves looking for books by people with foreign-sounding names. 

I have actually read it before — I read it when I bought it, about 15 years ago — but it’s short, so I thought I’d re-read it before ticking Mozambique off the list. I don’t remember it making much impact on me then, but this time I was impressed. It’s a slim (117 page) collection of vivid, fatalistic short stories, set in rural Mozambique and mainly told from a child’s perspective. Stylistically it has a kind of plain directness, in this translation at least. Kind of Hemingwayish. Not that I’ve read any Hemingway recently.

It seems to be out of print, unfortunately, but if you happen upon a copy somewhere, pick it up.

» The picture, Students returning from the school farm, was posted to Flickr by afronie and is used under a by-sa CC licence. It has no particular connection to the book except that it was taken in Mozambique.