Review: Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy

Of all the authors whose works most follow Kafka, Ferenc Karinthy is unlikely to be a name to leap to most readers’ lips. He remains virtually unknown in English-speaking countries. And yet his 1970 novel Metropole is a quintessential Kafkaesque piece which also, at times, manages to take Kafka’s ideas in new directions, recalibrating the central premise of Kafka’s work in startling and sometimes amusingly satirical ways.

As far as I can tell, Metropole, translated into English here with consummate skill by George Szirtes, is the first of Karinthy’s novels to be given an English translation. It’s attracted some commentary from readers, critics, and bloggers but it’s fair to say that it hasn’t penetrated the English-speaking literary scene in the way that Karinthy’s fellow central European novelists, such as Kundera, have done.

This is a pity, as Metropole is a novel about urban alienation taken to the extreme. In many ways, it is the story of the Tower of Babel rewritten for our modern age of post-industrial atomisation and powerlessness in the face of a world that we don’t understand and which, for its part, doesn’t understand us.

The plot of Metropole is easy enough to summarise, although beware that the below summary will contain a few details which might be regarded as ‘spoilers’.

Our protagonist is Budai, a Hungarian linguist and academic who is on his way to a conference in Helsinki. However, when he gets off the plane it quickly becomes apparent that he is not in Helsinki. In fact, he isn’t sure where he is: the place doesn’t resemble any city he’s heard of before. He tries to engage people in conversation, but nobody understands Hungarian, or any of the other languages he tries to communicate in. If even a linguist and polyglot can find themselves in a foreign city and unable to converse with anyone else around them, what chance have the rest of us got?

Metropole is, as you might expect, almost entirely lacking in dialogue, aside from the occasional incomprehensible sounds made by the inhabitants of this uncanny city. He tries to locate the railway station so he can leave, but this plan fails. Budai takes to dialling random telephone numbers and listening to the people who pick up, hoping he might accidentally reach someone who can speak a familiar language – and, thus, someone who might be able to help him.

But this plan comes to nothing. He takes to wandering the streets, noting down the shop signs and trying to decipher some of them based on the contents of the corresponding store. He manages to grasp some of the basic numbers in this mysterious language, but this doesn’t get him very far. He even gets himself arrested, so that he can speak to the police (via an interpreter), but instead he simply has to endure a sweaty and uncomfortable time in the local police station before receiving a fine.

As you can imagine, it’s difficult for Budai to forge any meaningful relationships with the citizens of this unknown city he finds himself in (and trying to escape). However, he does develop a connection with the female lift-operator in the hotel where he stays (even if he cannot work out for sure what her name is), proving that love and desire can transcend language.

However, shortly after this, he returns to his hotel room to find a troop of poverty-stricken families have moved in. Shortly after this, chaos breaks out in the city centre and some kind of revolution takes place, involving public executions and rioting. Metropole ends with Budai finally escaping the city – or at least, hopeful that he is finally escaping, via the open waters.

Metropole presents us with the ultimate portrayal of Kafkaesque alienation. In being unable to speak to, or understand, anyone around him, Budai becomes, in effect, like an animal or a very small child, unable to articulate his wants and needs, or at least to make them understood. Karinthy captures his frustration and mounting despair well, but the debt to Kafka is also apparent in the comically absurd details: the mouldy cheese one of the policemen is eating in the sweaty, smelly police station, or his merry dance with the fat doorman at the hotel.

But what is Metropole about? What is the meaning of this allegory? Perhaps, most fundamentally, the novel is about the modern urban landscape as a kind of prison from which it is difficult to escape. It is also about the different ways in which we find it hard to understand each other in the atomised and individualised world of the city. Karinthy simply takes these notions to their logical extreme. The result is an engaging, profound, but also darkly comic take on the modern ‘human condition’.

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