Image description: A black and white image of a crowded city
One of Amazon’s better ideas in recent years has been the ‘Kindle Deal of the Day’, where you can very cheaply acquire an ebook picked out from the otherwise overpopulated kindle bookstore. Some time ago, a book by Ferenc Karinthy, a Hungarian author, was selected to be one of the many ‘deals of the day’. Intrigued by the premise, I picked it up for less than a pound. The book itself, Metropole (published in 1970 in Hungarian as Epepe), caught my attention largely through capturing one of my worst nightmares.
The main character, a linguist named Budai, finds himself on the wrong plane while travelling to a conference, and arrives in a seemingly endless city where everyone speaks a language he simply cannot understand. He can’t interact with anyone meaningfully, there are no distinctive marks which reveal the identity of the city – the architecture is bland, the food is varied, the religion is bizarre and unknowable, and the people are of seemingly random ethnicities with no dominant one observed. Worst of all, his money is steadily running out. Despite being in an enormous city, the novel somehow manages to invoke feelings of claustrophobia and loneliness, and it successfully invokes that childhood feeling of being lost in a public place: you have no idea what’s going on, you have no frame of reference to comprehend the world, and you are utterly without support.
If that grips your attention, I’d thoroughly recommend abandoning this review here and obtaining it for yourself. From here on out I will gladly spoil the book’s plot – be ye warned.
Metropole is essentially a rather straightforward Kafkaesque tale, where the world is an incomprehensible mess of bureaucracy and misunderstandings, in which our character is utterly trapped. It’s a novel that couldn’t be written today: modern airport security would prevent a sleepy linguist from simply catching the wrong flight, and the miracle of the internet means that being totally and utterly lost is a feeling that is much harder to come by.
When it deals with revolution and flight, it seems rather dated, but when it captures those immortal fears, those primordial discomforts… that is when this obscure Hungarian novel shines.
From the perspective of someone who lives in a relatively quiet suburb, and dislikes going into large cities, the book expertly captures the sensation of always being too close to someone, always being in a state of uncomfortable physical intimacy, and being forbidden any kind of introspective solitude while in a public place. Karinthy describes the streets of the endless city as being perpetually crowded, filled with people with threatening expressions, who gladly jostle and shove our hapless protagonist off the pavements, into and out of buildings, and through enormous queues (the latter is akin to being digested). You don’t speak the language, and no-one has any interest in teaching it to you. The lights are too bright, the air is thick with pollution, the temperature is either too cold or far too hot, and everything is simply too expensive. It’s in this state that the book shines, in my opinion: the perpetual discomfort of the modern metropolis, and the little fears which I imagine plague many of us – the sinking feeling of being on the wrong train, knowing full well that you are going somewhere strange and unknown, and all you can do is wait as you are whisked further and further away from safety.
The book doesn’t fall flat by any means, but it does suffer from the curse of a Kafkaesque novel: the ending. The city is eventually swept up in a fiery revolution which Budai knows nothing about, yet is forced to participate in nevertheless, but following days upon days of violence and upheaval, the city returns to normal. The scorch marks are plastered over, the streets are repaired or diverted around the larger craters, and people seem to forget the revolution ever happened. It’s something of a damp squib, after all, few of us can be said to have experienced first-hand a violent revolution and the chaos of combat. The little fears that are so masterfully created in the majority of the book fade away, to be replaced with more conventional conflicts.
To a Hungarian audience in the 1970s, the book would perhaps bring to mind the revolution of 1956, and the Soviet victory that followed it. But, much like the premise, to modern readers encountering the English translation, this book is a relic of a past time. When it deals with revolution and flight, it seems rather dated, but when it captures those immortal fears, those primordial discomforts… that is when this obscure Hungarian novel shines. I can only recommend it so much.
Image credit: Htsa via Wikimedia Commons