Metropole isn’t the kind of book I normally pick up and read. It’s been described to me as “a genuine classic of Hungarian dystopian fiction” (two literary genres I’m not usually prone to stray into). Karinthy, apparently, is actually very well known in Hungary; he is the son of Frigyes Kerinthy, a “renowned humorist genius”, and was a much lauded writer and, of all things, a water polo champion. Needless to say, he isn’t very well known in the English-speaking world. In fact, Metropole (Epepe in the original, which was published in 1970) is the first (and, I believe, the only) one of his books to be translated in English — and it only came out in 2008!
I came to read Metropole because it was given to me under very special circumstances. You see, for my birthday, my girlfriend gave me something called “A Year of Reading” from my favourite bookstore, Mr. B’s Emporium of Reading Delights, in Bath. The Year of Reading in question means that I went over to the bookshop and had talk with my personal bibliotherapist (hi Lucinda!) to assess my needs, tastes, and general reading habits. She will then be sending a book at the beginning of every month, for an entire year. It’s amazing! During the talk I mentioned that I don’t usually read much scifi/fantasy, although I realize there’s a lot of good stuff out there, except I don’t know where to start. Metropole was her answer to my dilemma.
The premise of Metropole is highly intriguing: a Hungarian linguist, Budai, on his way to conference in Helsinki, somehow boards the wrong plane and ends up, by a chain of unlucky, confusing circumstances, in an unknown city where people speak a language Budai doesn’t know, and cannot decipher. It’s impossible not to be very much reminded of Kafka, or Nineteen Eighty-Four. Everything is at once recognizable and yet slightly askew in the strange metropolis the reader is invited to discover: the language is completely separate from any linguistic group known to Budai, and yet they seem to be used in the same way as anywhere on billboards and receipts and phonebooks; the city appears to function like any other city, with roads and traffic and a metro system and tall buildings, except that there is an oppressive crowd everywhere, so that Budai always has to maneuvre his way through throngs of people to get anywhere and queue for frustrating amounts of time to buy anything; and finally people eat and drink normally, except all the food and drink has a sweet, slightly sickly taste to it.
At the beginning of Metropole, the curiousness of the world Budai falls into and his helpless attempts to understand it — especially the language — sustain the reader’s attention for some time; but as failed attempts to communicate with people and episodic discoveries of the sheer oddity of this dystopian place succeed each other (and with quite a good number of pages to go), I started thinking that I just wanted to know how the whole thing ended, now, and that the novel would’ve made a better short story. Budai’s failure to pierce the mysterious language — which seems to shift and flux constantly in its oral form, while the writing has an apparently endless number of characters — was so infuriating, the reader is left wondering if the inhabitants of the city just talk in gibberish, emitting random sounds and writing down random symbols and managing to understand and get understood through some kind of thought osmosis. I imagined Budai would just need to speak nonsense and would start being being understood perfectly. However, I think the story just needed some space in order to develop a pattern of repetition and draw the reader more efficiently into Budai’s psychology, as a stranger trying to cope with an entire world that seems determined to elude understanding. And it’s true that, after a while, I started to feel how odd it was to walk around a city with countless people I did not know. Crowds can be very uncanny, when you think about it.
Where the novel succeeds in providing a touching reading experience with true to life human emotion is in the peculiar relationship that eventually develops between Budai and the lift girl in the hotel where he is staying. Budai initially uses the girl to learn some of the language in the city, but through their growing intimacy the novel finally achieves a level of warmth and depth that was initially lacking in a narrative that begins in such a cold, stylistically dull manner. The book also reaches a satisfying, albeit violent, climax near the end, where the unsuspecting confused Budai is swept in a wave of popular unrest. The point of the novel emerges out of the growing chaos and cyclical nature of human society; and it is hard not to think of the Hungarian revolution — which occurred just 14 years before Metropole was first published — as having something to do with the last 30 pages of the novel.
In all, an interesting read — not altogether riveting, but certainly not boring — which I’m happy to have discovered. I’ll look out for his water polo champion cum writer in the future; hopefully more of his works will be made available in English.