Thursday, April 02, 2009

Book Look: Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy

Book Look: Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy: What a strange and disturbing book. Budai gets on a plane heading for a linguistics conference in Helsinki and falls asleep. When he wakes up, the plane has landed in a very strange entirely urban nation whose denizens speak an indecipherable language. Pushed along with the multitudes into a hotel, his money is exchanged for the strange local currency, his passport is taken, he is given a room, and then he is on his own. He can't get anyone to understand that he needs to get back to the airport. The telephone offers no connections outside the city-state. He can't get anyone to understand anything he is trying to get across. Frustrated and angry, he struggles with the basics of finding a food and figuring out how to find his way around and get someone to comprehend him. He grows more aggravated and annoyed as his efforts to communicate and get home continually fail.

He eventually figures out how to ride the metro and is able to explore a bit of the sprawling, chaotic city. Much of it is familiar in the way that all huge cities have similar rhythms but nothing seems to get him closer to getting home or even to the airport. He attempts more and more outrageous things to get someone to understand him, eventually spending a night in jail. He makes agonizingly slow progress in understanding the inscrutable language, but after a few weeks has only mastered a couple of words. He makes an emotional connection to woman and actually seems to be progressing a bit -- then he runs out of money, gets kicked out of the hotel, and whatever little progress he made is lost. He manages to get some itinerant work but is basically left living on the street and teetering on the verge of madness where he stumbles into what at first seems to be some kind of political revolution.

We never see Budai get home, but at the very end we are given some sort of hint that he may escape, or least that he still has hope.

In Europe, Metropole is considered something of a classic. Karinthy was a well-known and popular Hungarian writer (as was his father), and it's clear that his experiences behind the Iron Curtain (Metropole was written in 1970) strongly influenced his portrayal of Budai's nightmare. The links to Kafka are indisputable. The sense of alienation and loneliness and hopelessness in the face of unfeeling injustice run deep. But the thing that really makes Metropole hit hard is the sense that you could do no better than Budai. Accept the premise of being caught in such a place; what would you do to get out of it? This is almost certainly the question every reader will ask himself and you'll be hard pressed to find an answer. That's what makes it so disconcerting. The book is similar to a horror movie in that you feel compelled to identify with the victim and you find yourself in complete sympathy with Budai's pain and desperation. And like a good horror film, reading Metropole isn't exactly a pleasant experience, but you can't look away.