Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy
Translated by George Szirtes
Metropole is the story of one traveller’s nightmare. Budai, a linguist, was on his way to a conference in Helsinki, when he somehow gets on the wrong plane. Being exhausted, he doesn’t realise this until he is on the bus to the hotel, he assumes the plane has been diverted in transit. Once he arrives at a huge bustling hotel, he joins the queue to book in.
He tried to address the receptionist in Finnish, then in English, French, German, and Russian, all clearly to no avail since the man replied in a different unknown language. He showed the man his passport and the desk-clerk took it from him, no doubt to jot down the details, handing him a copper-weighted key in return.
All the time he tries to make himself understood, there is a crowd behind him, pushing. The desk-clerk points him to the cash-desk to get some currency, and he has to join another queue. He pockets his cash without examining it, and heads off for the lift and again he has to queue. Luckily, the room number is on the key in familiar numerals, and he can signal the floor he wants to the tall, blonde, blue-uniformed lift girl. What a palaver! He unpacks and heads out to find food.
Once again, the fat, gold-braided, fur-coated doorman saluted him, but the street was no less crowded than the hall, its tide of humanity swirling, flooding and lurching this was 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 blows on his shoulder 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 revving, horns furiously blaring…
Later, the realisation that he has no idea of where he is and how to make himself understood so he can get back to the airport sets in. He tries to decipher the telephone book, and room notices – but this language is impossible – even for a linguist like Budai, every time they say anything, it sounds different. He is literally stuck, only has a limited amount of money, and they took his passport away. He falls into a cycle of exploring the city, managing somehow to work out the metro, but is no closer to discovering a rail station let alone the airport. He watches workers constructing a skyscraper near the hotel, and each day they add another floor. His money is beginning to run out. The only light in his life is a sort-of conversation by sign-language he strikes up with the lift girl on her fag-breaks. She says her name is Epepe, but every time she says it it sounds different again. How will he get out of this? I will only say it doesn’t get better as he gets turfed out of the hotel.
You can use any or all dystopian nightmare descriptors for this book: Kafkaesque, Orwellian, etc – take your pick. It’s very bleak, but one of my first reactions was a comedy one – I mean, where’s a ‘Babelfish’ (right, from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) when you need one? There is the obvious reference to the Tower of Babel where God mixed up everyone’s languages. My second reaction was that Metropole is set in a metropolis that is simply ghastly, virtually no-one talks or listens to each other, everywhere is teeming with people all going nowhere by whatever means it takes all of the time. Was this a metaphor for living under Communist rule? Metropole was published under its original title Epepe in 1970, and feels of its time in that respect.
It always feels grey too, apart from the hotel which has a hint of the Grand Hotel Budapest main interior about it, (but full of people). I was reminded of Bill Murray in the lift in Lost in Translation too, indeed Budai and Epepe could be the two main characters in that film, although its title also refers to transformation from one one stage of life to another, not the purely Babelian, to pick up the biblical metaphor again.
The only problem with this novel having set out its main theme is that it doesn’t have anywhere much to go unless the protagonist has an epiphany. It’s not a long read, but we do spend ages with Budai out on his searches, repeating his daily grind to find a way out of his predicament. With the exception of Budai’s interactions with Epepe, there was a lot of mundanity and not much excitement which was echoed in the writing which for me wasn’t particularly gripping. Szirtes is renowned as a translator, so I assume he worked with what he was given for this 2008 first translation into English. I did like the way the book measured time against the building of the skyscraper though. This book is not a long novel, but felt longer, and it isn’t a comfortable book to read. Seen through Budai’s eyes, the reader is as much in the dark as he is, and the reader will have many questions by the end which aren’t necessarily answered.
What this book does highlight clearly though is the isolation that people can feel when they relocate and the claustrophobia that can generate. Metropole has a great concept, despite Budai’s battle for survival in the daily grind in which he has landed, and there was never a case of not finishing this book, I had to see where his searching led. (7/10)
Source: Own copy. Ferenc Karinthy, Metropole (Telegram Books, transl. 2008) paperback, 236 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)