Well, it definitely seems that obscure European authors are my thing at the moment – and Ferenc Karinthy *definitely* qualifies in that category, particularly as Metropole is the only novel of his to be translated into English so far. I’ve been trying to recall how I stumbled across this one – and I can only think that it came up as a recommendation on the Big River site once, and I was attracted by the cover and the concept! Anyway, Youngest Child picked it from my wish list for Christmas (and she’s now cursing that wish list and her gift shopping for me, as all she gets for recommendations nowadays is Russians!)

metropole

Metropole is published by Telegram Books, and the actual volume doesn’t tell you very much about the author. However, fortunately Wikipedia comes to the rescue: “Ferenc Karinthy (June 2, 1921, Hungary – February 29, 1992) was a novelist, playwright, journalist, editor and translator, as well as a water polo champion. He authored more than a dozen novels. He was born in Budapest, the second son of celebrated Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy. He wrote his first novel, Don Juan éjszakája (Don Juan’s night) in 1943 while studying literature and linguistics at Pázmány Péter University. In 1945 he was awarded a PhD in linguistics. Karinthy worked as a script editor for Nemzeti Színház and Madách Theatre, as well as theatres in Miskolc, Szeged and Debrecen. Between 1957 and 1960, Karinthy translated a number of writers into Hungarian including Machiavelli and Molière. He won a number of awards for his own writing including the Baumgarten Prize, the József Attila Prize and the Kossuth Prize. Karinthy died in Budapest in 1992. Napló (Journal), the diary Karinthy kept between 1969 and 1991, was published posthumously in 1994.”

The protagonist of the story is Budai, a linguist who is travelling to Helsinki for a conference. Somehow, he manages to take the wrong plane at an airport, and in the confusion of travel ends up in a strange hotel in a strange city, where no-one speaks his language. This is in many ways the modern metropolis from hell – stuffed to the gills with rushing, pushing people; queues for literally everything; building work going on; no obvious way out of the place, and a melting pot of multi-racial occupants. Allocated a room and with his travelling cheque changed for local money, Budai initially is simply puzzled and frustrated, unable to find anyone who speaks any of the many languages he knows. He is anxious to get to Helsinki for the conference, concerned about how his absence will seem; but gradually it dawns on him that his predicament is more serious than he thought. Without the means to communicate, he cannot find his way to an airport or an embassy, or even explain what has happened to him. Instead, his days begin to be spent in endless frustration, trying to find his way around the place on foot or via the Metro system, but unable to find a way out.

Budai makes a connection with a lift attendant who seems sympathetic and who attempts some kind of language tuition. But his money is running out and as he stumbles from situation to situation, his predicament becomes worse and worse – how will he survive in this hostile environment and will he ever make his way back home?

“…he hated, he utterly loathed this town that was nothing but cuts and blows, that was forcing him to act against his nature, that gripped him and would not let him go, that hung onto him and pulled him back.”

The obvious comparison which springs to mind is Kafka, and certainly the atmosphere of confusion, lack of communication and an inability to understand, or deal with, one’s hostile surroundings does bring his work to mind. However, this striking book seems to be very much about language, the importance of it and how the human race would struggle (particularly in the modern world) without communication. As a monolinguist, I can certainly empathise with that point of view! And Budai is a linguist, with considerable experience of how strange languages can be deciphered, but he fails spectacularly with this one; in fact, it is such a fluid one that the lift attendant’s name is rendered in several different versions and Budai is never quite sure of which is her real name!

Meanwhile, Karinthy builds up the world of the city in all its strangeness, and does it quite brilliantly. He juxtaposes the familiar and the strange alongside, so that the effect is unsettled (for both Budai and the reader). The food is recognisable, but everything tastes too sweet. There are buildings that might be churches, but turn into shopping malls. People in uniforms could be police or workers. Those cars with stripes on the front – are they taxis or not? And in his explorations through the seething masses thronging the city, Budai stumbles upon some strange and unnerving sights: following a herd of cows, in case he reaches the country, he comes across the nightmarish reality of a slaughterhouses; wandering at night he ends up in a foggy cemetery, where the graves are lit by small lights; when he finally does find a church, the ceremonies are incomprehensible and almost barbaric. Climbing to the top of the building to look out over the city, he can see no chance of escape, no sight of a coastline.

Ferenc_Karinthy

All the while, his actions are practically out of his control. Often, when he’s trying to make his way around, the crowds of pushing, shoving humans force him in a particular direction which he hadn’t planned. Eventually, he stumbles into what seems like some kind of civil war or revolution, but through all this Budai has no real idea of what is going one, and very little sense of time. Crucially, he brought no watch on his trip, planning to buy one in Helsinki, and so he has nothing to relate to his old life. Instead, he measures the passing of time by the number of floors on a skyscraper being built, which seems to go up more rapidly the longer he stays.

“…he was without friends, acquaintances, indeed documents, and to all intents and purposes, utterly on his own, in an unknown city of whose very name he was ignorant, where no-one spoke any language that he could understand even though he knew a great many languages, and where he had yet to find anyone with whom he might exhange a word or two.

As I followed Budai’s nightmare journey, I found myself musing on what Karinthy was trying to say with this book. This being a post-modern world, there are a number of possibilities which spring to mind: a literal interpretation, whereby Budai has simply been whisked off to some real, obscure place; death in a plane crash, so that Budai is in purgatory or even hell; or of course an allegory, which in the end is the reading I came down to. There is a very striking scene where Budai is drawn by the crowd into a big hall, filled with apes in cages; the apes are of all different species, all reacting differently to their surroundings and it’s impossible not to compare them with the mass of humanity, its behaviour remarkably similar and, often in the book, mindless and bestial. Language is the key to everything – is the skyscraper a representation of the Tower of Babel? – and it’s what separates us from animals. All Budai’s linguistic skills let him down, and he descends at one point to almost an animal level of existence.

The book ends ambiguously – there is a note of hope in Budai’s mind, but whether we are right to share this is not clear. In some ways, whether he escapes or not is irrelevant – it’s the journey he’s been on that’s important, the descent from complex, modern civilization into a world of confusion and chaos.

Karinthy’s writing is excellent throughout, and really conveys the manic, desperate quality of the city and its inhabitants. It’s agonising at times watching Budai’s attempts to rationalise the events and the language, and to be beaten at every turn. I’m surprised that his work isn’t better known, as on the evidence of Metropole he was quite a writer and deserves a much wider audience. If you like Kafka or Orwell or Koestler, this is definitely one for you!

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