Extract as it appears in Making the World Legible
At this point my much respected readers should be asked if they’ve ever heard of a gentleman called Rácz. Of course, this is purely a rhetorical question, because if the reader in his boundless kindness has already reached for this modest book, then the author will not be presumptuous in assuming that the name of Rácz is not totally unfamiliar to the reader.
This literary hero’s faithful supporters and admirers will certainly be pleased to be told that, in my imagination, he is still having an excellent time. His hotels, restaurants, pizzerias, and casinos prosper just as they did in previous Rivers of Babylon books. He is doing equally well in other business activities. Since he is an influential man and knows how to win over similarly influential people, he has managed to privatise successfully some lucrative businesses. Take, for example, the once famous Stupava brewery that was recently going broke. Rácz bought it for peanuts and everybody thought that he was going to asset-strip it. But not Rácz. Not this time. Beer, unlike banking or insurance business, really amused him. He didn’t strip its assets: on the contrary, he surrounded himself by experts and invested in new technology. The quality of Stupavar 11º, once so popular, went up. It won a prize at the Agrokomplex Fair and even got a gold medal at the Munich Beer Festival. Using sophisticated media campaigns he taught people how to drink Stupavar. And their new product, the dark beer Mast 16º? It flies off the shelves even in the Czech lands. And that is, as they say, something.
Rácz is no great beer expert. When he needed experts, he bought them. He doesn’t drink much beer. He watches his weight. The slightest hint of a paunch is quickly dealt with in his home fitness room. He prefers good whisky, the best. He has been faithful to the Chivas Regal brand for many years, but won’t say no to other reputable brands either.
‘It’s not only Scotland where they know how to distil a good whisky! Not just Heevash Reygahl!’ he remarks and taps a bottle labelled Single Malt. ‘Malta, too! This Maltese one is quite good!’
Lately, he’s acquired a taste for cognac. If you want to please him, give him a bottle of XO. He’s sure to appreciate it.
Someone once brought him a bottle of a valuable old Armagnac. Rácz thanked him, so as not to offend the donor, but secretly gave the bottle to his chief bodyguard, Mozoň. ‘Rácz drinks only French cognac!’ he declared condescendingly. ‘Armenian cognac, from what used to be Russia, is only good for ex-secret policemen.’
Rácz never refuses a good bourbon, either. ‘It doesn’t always have to be just Scottish or Maltese whisky,’ he says. ‘Even the French can make a good one. Their bourbon’s not bad at all.’
So much about Rácz’s consumer habits.
He enjoys living in the luxury villa above the city. He’s not often to be found there, however. You’re more likely to find him in the Hotel Ambassador Rácz, where he has his office.
If he manages to get home early occasionally, he devotes himself to his family. It’s his temple and his refuge in the rough seas of the mundane duties and worries of a major businessman and a man of power. His beautiful, intelligent wife Lenka has borne him two sons: the older, Karol, and the younger, Attila. The boys are bright; they study well. Next year, Karol will go to an élite boarding school in Great Britain.
Karol doesn’t like the idea. His friends are here, and he can brag in school about his father. In England, they’ll all be like him. Maybe he’ll turn out to be the poorest one of all.
In a moment of weakness he confides in his father.
Rácz’s eyes almost pop out of his face.
‘There’s no way Rácz’s son is going to be a poor man!’ he roars.
Then he calms down. He will put a kind, but stern mask on his face. Karol shouldn’t brag about his father’s accomplishments. He should brag about what he’s going to achieve himself. If he does achieve anything. A bit of modesty never hurt anyone.
Karol’s mother joins in. She sides with his father, but she supports her son as well. Now she’s unhappy at the idea of losing him for a while. She tries to move the goalposts. She repeats that the boy is sensitive and afraid of being alone. He’s eight now and even today he gets into their bed whenever he has a bad dream. Doesn’t Rácz love him?
Rácz frowns. Now he has two rivals. He wants his sons to be tough, educated and manly. Not cissies. Yes, he does love Karol; after all he is his first-born son. He loves Attila, the younger one, too. And he loves Lenka, too. But Rácz’s love is not soppy or soft. His love is tough, demanding, and strict. He doesn’t want to feed his sons fish forever. He wants to teach his sons to catch fish. And do it better than anyone else.
Karol can’t grasp that. But he senses his mother could stop things happening, including his father’s decision. Didn’t she tell him he was afraid of being on his own? Yes, being on his own is what he fears. He’s afraid of being on his own.
Rácz laughs. Rácz has been alone ever since childhood. He was an orphan, practically. Nobody liked him. Where he comes from, everyone let him down, and, worse, hurt him. Karol needn’t bullshit Rácz, his own father. Rácz looks at his wife; her look of reproach bounces back to his eyes. But Rácz has to say it straight. Karol can’t use loneliness as a pretext for defiance. He has no idea what real loneliness is, he’s just blathering. When Rácz arrived in the city, in Rivers of Babylon, he didn’t know anyone there. He stuck out like a sore thumb. He lived in a little hovel behind the boiler-room. Everyone treated him like a mug. But he didn’t let them. And why not? Because he’s no fool. In the end he worked his way to the top. All that time he found only one being he could confide in and who really loved him. Yes, Karol’s mother! She even dropped out of university for Rácz’s sake. Because she believed in him. And who was he? A shitty stoker! This is how, like a little flower, he climbed out of his basement up to the light. And he finally got to where he is now. Rácz did it; now he wants Karol to do even better. Not to have to travel even one of the thorny paths his father had to take. He simply wants Karol to start where his father passes the baton to him. To take it further. And higher. So he’s got to go to that school. With strict discipline. And English, day and night. That’s how winners are educated, fucking right!
Karol’s cheeks are puffed. He doesn’t want to be like his father. He wants to be a musician. He wants to have guitar or drum lessons.
Rácz clutches his head with his hands. Why guitar? Why drums? No one in the Rácz family needs to learn a musical instrument. The Rácz family has enough money to hire people to play for them. Anytime, even at midnight. Karol will go to school, period. Other boys would shriek for joy. There are boys who study shit-all, because their parents haven’t got the money. Rácz, for example, only did two years at agricultural college. That’s all his education; luckily he has brains. His parents, God rest their souls, were so stingy that he had to eat his bread buttered underneath, so they couldn’t see. They had a boiled egg once a year, at Easter. The leftovers on Karol’s plate would have kept Rácz alive for a week when he was his age. A week!
Karol is quiet. He stubbornly shakes his head. That school, that Eton, makes you wear uniform.
‘So what?’ Rácz claps his hands. ‘SO WHAT? For Christ’s sake! Rácz had to wear overalls all his childhood. Handed down from his father. Even to school. That was his uniform. In summer he went barefoot, in winter he wore rubber boots. He used to stuff them with newspapers, and wrapped his feet in newspaper, too, to stop his toes freezing. Luckily, down south, the winters aren’t so bad. Uniforms? That’s what Rácz really appreciates. They’ll finally make a man out of Karol. No more of those revolting baggy jeans, baggy tee shirts and expensive trainers three sizes too big. By the way, talking about trainers, would Karol kindly tie his shoelaces? Rácz can’t stand the sight of them. He’s waiting. That’s more like it. Otherwise Karol might step on his shoelace and, since he walks about with his head in the clouds like a zombie, he could easily fall, hit his head, and get even more stupid than he is now! And those horrible baseball caps! The peak was meant to keep out the sun. So why is Karol’s cap turned round with the peak at the back? He looks like some kind of Jew. And anyway, why does he wear that cap, if it’s a baseball cap? Does Karol play baseball? Has he ever held a baseball bat in his hand? No, he’s clumsy at everything. What a bungler! In England, that school is sure to have baseball, too. He’ll learn how to play and right away he’ll find out what that cap is for.
Rácz hopes that his son will at least be happy about that. But Karol is not the sporty type. He’s still in a huff.
And Karol can kindly straighten his back, Rácz orders. They’ll teach him in that school. Twenty hours of P.E. a week. Karol needn’t make faces. There won’t be any staff there, no servants, no cleaning woman over there: Karol will have to do everything for himself. And not only for himself, but for others, too, because the first year he will have to be a fag for the older boys. He heard the first time. That’s how it is in English boarding schools. Bullying. But Karol mustn’t let it get him down: that’s nothing compared to the bullying that Rácz put up with in army service. Lešany near Prague. Military unit 5963, third artillery regiment, seventh battery. That was army service! And he survived. Because he was what? Because he was no fool, but tough and honest, as well.
Rácz smiles and lights a cigar. He puts his arm round his stubborn son’s shoulders and walks with him through the big French windows onto the spacious terrace. With his free hand, a cigar between his fingers, he traces an arc over the city’s illuminated night panorama.
‘If you cope with all that,’ he tells his son, ‘when humility, self-denial, and hard physical and psychological demands make a better person of you, then you’ll come back here and all this will be yours.’
The same way as it now belongs to Rácz. As a sign of togetherness, he slaps his son on the back.
‘May I go inside now?’ Karol asks, still in a huff.
‘Clear off,’ says Rácz: he feels let down, shrouds himself in smoke and shreds in his hand an eight-hundred-crown Romeo y Julieta cigar.
The panorama of the city is breathtaking. Rácz searches out the lights of the buildings that he owns and slowly calms down. He has been having difficulties lately with distant vision. Everything looks foggy. If he squints, he can see well, but he sees everything double. Rácz is beginning to worry. Could he possibly need glasses? Rácz always used to have an eagle’s eyesight.
Luckily the buildings of the hotels Ambassador Rácz I and II are so prominent that the hotelier can effortlesly rest his admiring gaze on them. For a while Rácz plunges into memories. He recalls the times when he was a nobody, stoking the Hotel Ambassador. Gradually working his way up to be the king of the money-changers and a powerful man. And later buying the hotel at auction, surrounding himself with reliable people, and harshly sorting out the Albanian mafia. Yes, Rácz is a big boss, admired and feared. They all obey his every word. Word? They obey if he raises an eyebrow. It’s only in his own family that he can’t keep order. He’s too soft.
In the evening, accompanied by two guards, he drives into town. He enters the Hotel Ambassador, walks through the lobby, and takes a look at the bar. Then he turns on the computer in his office and checks his various businesses’ daily takings. One bodyguard stands outside in the hallway; the other one stands near the door, watching the antechamber on the screen. About midnight, people from Rácz’s security company, Sekuritatia, drag in Sabadoš, the owner of a casino in the centre. He has not been paying into the kitty for his security. Rácz’s people have kept an eye on him for a while and have now decided to put the squeeze on him.
Rácz asks a guard to pull off Sabadoš’s belt. He beats the guilty man with the belt for a long time. When his right hand begins to hurt, he uses his left. When his left begins to hurt, too, he hands the belt to another guard to carry on. Sabadoš’s back and buttocks are minced like a hamburger, he’s crying like a woman.
As the guard beats him, Rácz watches him without anger. ‘Šolík’s a kind man,’ he tells the victim. ‘If you’ve got kids, he’ll bring them up.’
From The End of Freddy (Volume 3 of the Rivers of Babylon trilogy) by Peter Pišťanek
Translated from the Slovak by Peter Petro (Garnett Press 2008)
Peter Pišťanek was born in 1960. He enrolled in Bratislava’s Academy of Performing Arts, but did not graduate, and was also a drummer in a rock group. His breakthrough came in 1991 with Rivers of Babylon, the first novel in the trilogy.
Peter Petro is Professor of Russian and East European literature and Chair of Modern European Studies at the University of British Columbia.. He is the author of Modern Satire: Four Studies (1982) and A History of Slovak Literature (1995), and has translated Martin Šimečka’s The Year of the Frog and Alexej Fulmek’s Dispatches from the Home Front (2000).