Ferenc Karinthy: Metropole
At the beginning of Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler there is a passage on the various types of books we meet in our lives, such as those we haven’t read, those we needn’t read, and those we plan to read. One of the more obscure categories is books that fill you with sudden, inexplicable curiosity, not easily justified, and it’s to this category that I assign Ferenc Karinthy’s Metropole (1970), published in English for the first time. Well, perhaps not inexplicable, as its strange premise and eye candy cover help justify the curiosity.
That strange premise sees a linguist, Budai, heading to a conference in Helsinki where he is due to make a presentation, only to wake from the airplane, still hazy, finding himself hustled onto a bus and shuttled to a large hotel. Only then does he realise that he’s not in Helsinki. As to where he is, well that’s a different story, because nobody seems to speak his language, or any of the others his linguistic background allows him.
…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 exchange a word or two.
One person with whom he has an exchange is the beautiful blonde elevator-operator, although verbally it doesn’t amount to much. Her name is Epepe – although it may be Bebe, Tetete, Egyegye, or Tchetche, he finds it hard to make her out. Budai finds himself drawn to her, not just for her beauty, but because in this indifferent world, Epepe is the only one that seems to acknowledge him, even if their interactions are brief and ultimately frustrating:
They had got round to greeting each other by now and there were occasional signs that she was showing some interest in him too. Twice she addressed Budai as he was about to get out and he smiled and shrugged to show he had not understood. The crowd in that narrow space gave no time for explanations and he was quickly swept away by the others getting off.
Even though he keeps coming back to Epepe, Budai regularly ventures beyond the hotel, into the unnamed metropolis itself:
….the street was no less crowded than the hall, its tide of humanity swirling, flooding, and lurching this way and that. Everyone was in a hurry, panting, elbowing and fighting to get through; one elderly woman in a headscarf kicked him as hard as she could on the ankle and he received a good many more blows on his shoulders and ribs. The traffic in the roadway was equally packed, the cars nose to tail, now stopping, now starting, making absolutely no allowance for pedestrians, as if they were stuck in some eternal bottleneck, engines continually reving, horns furiously blaring…
While this “never-ending rush hour” conjures images of a dystopian cityscape, Karinthy still brings humour to its bleakness, notably through Budai’s explorations. There are queues everywhere and while citizens may find themselves lining up for their everyday rations, they also wait their turn to sit on park benches and, in one comic scene, Budai, takes in a brothel, hoping to communicate there, and finds hordes of men knocking at the door, hurrying him up.
Added to the bleakly comic tone is an undercurrent of melancholia which haunts the novel. Each page, simmers with frustration and helplessness. When Budai thinks he may have a solution, an array of problems announce themselves, his troubles continually cascading into further torment. Nowhere is this more felt than in a huge centrepiece chapter that shows all Budai’s attempts to understand the language spoken around him.
There’s little dialogue throughout the book – indeed, when the local dialect is described as “a language without discernible inflections, a continual jabbering” – there’s little need for it, although Karinthy does allow some of the nonsense (‘Chetchenche glubglubb? Guluglulubb?‘), if only to knowlingly frustrate the reader too. And the large passages of text unbroken by dialogue mirror the daunting nature of the city, a mass of bricks unending.
Like anything that could elicit comparisons to Kafka, there’s an element of horror amongst the absurdity, notably as Budai observes a fight breaking out a subway station:
Could it be that they themselves could not understand each other, that the people who lived here employed various provincial dialects, possibly even quite different languages? In a particularly feverish moment it even occurred to him that each one of them might be speaking his own language, that there were as many languages as there were people.
If it isn’t Hell, it’s certainly a private hell for Budai, and while certain events echo the Hungarian revolution, there are other hints that, beyond the narrative’s veil, there could be more autobiographical elements at work, perhaps even a cameo from the author’s father, the writer and translator, Frigyes Karinthy.
Originally published under the name Epepe, for the aforementioned elevator-operator, a bold and appropriate decision has been made to change the title to reflect the larger scope of the novel’s setting. In doing this we find the city is our anchor, rather than the girl, and in this city that Budai deems “an equation without known quantities”, Metropole more than adds up to the sum of its parts.
May 26, 2008