Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Metropole (A Review)

Ferenc Karinthy (1921-1992), a trained linguist, was the son of famed Hungarian writer playwright Frigyes Karinthy. Not surprisingly, then, the complexity and confusion of language is the central theme of Karinthy's 1970 novel Metropole (originally entitled Epépé), the Kafkaesque tale of a hapless narrator stranded on the top floor of the figurative Tower of Babel.

The plot builds upon a basic but very ironic premise: Budai, a linguist, seems to have boarded the wrong plane on his way to a conference in Helsinki and has now ended up in a mysterious city in an unknown country with a singularly incomprehensible language. It is packed to overflowing: human congestion spills from the lobbies out into the streets and Budai is rudely rushed down sidewalks and through lines. Even the solitude of the hotel room he manages to acquire is afflicted by the alien alphabet he encounters in a framed printout presumably of hotel regulations. The overwhelming effect is one of claustrophobia reinforced by a rambling syntax that pushes headlong from page to page in lengthy paragraphs. A harried Budai roams from place to place in time with the narrative rhythm, attempting unsuccessfully to find . . . a way . . . out . . . OF . . . HERE! The very density of the urban dreamscape – its unyielding masses of humanity and mazes of streets, alleys, passageways, myriads of neighborhoods – seems to compress into a solid wall, entrapping Budai as effectively as any stone-and-mortar fortification. The mounting tension is palpable, even as it superficially plateaus when Budai settles into his hotel room, finds some work, and even acquires a sort of girlfriend. Obviously such fragile comfort cannot possibly last: it must prelude some catastrophe, which, when it comes, seems naturally inevitable as the expected fate of a stranger in a wholly strange land.

Yet strangely enough, however, Budai's demeanor throughout his ordeal is not one of panic or outright desperation; on the contrast, he is more perturbed than anything else. He is similar in that respect to many of Kafka's protagonists, particularly Gregor Samsa the giant bug, as an individual whose reaction to a grotesque or extraordinary situation is one of bemusement or annoyance rather than shock or terror. This lends a greater element of realism to Metropole that might have been otherwise submerged in emotional bombast. Metropole is frightening because it comes across as a probable scenario – not because it is a horror novel in the Stephen King or Dean Koontz sense of the term. In fact, it reminded me, oddly enough, of Johnny Got His Gun, as a tale of a man locked in a nightmarish scenario and desperate make himself understood. What Metropole also does quite effectively is to unearth the subliminal fears of anonymity and invisibility in contemporary society (a topic Dubravka Ugresic also explores in her essay "Opium" in Nobody's Home). Indeed, it is a story of individuality and subjectivity taken to their greatest extreme: if each citizen of Metropole is actually uttering a verbal articulation of their own private language, as Budai comes to suspect, then maybe the driving force behind modern isolation is precisely this teeming urban obscurity, in addition to Western culture's emphasis on personal independence, personal ambition, personal expression, personal gratification, and ad infinitum. If Budai is jarringly cool about his predicament, then perhaps that is because his situation is merely a farcical extension of the realities of modern life.

Despite its relatively unknown status in the United States, Metropole, 236 pages long and translated from Hungarian by George Szirtes, is actually considered a modern classic. Its unspecified setting and multilingual protagonist contribute to a greater international, cross-cultural appeal, especially as the nameless city is described as a place that is simultaneously generic and strikingly diverse, which any reader anywhere can envision for themselves. The bizarre nature of the story is itself an attraction, since one cannot help but wonder where all this could possibly lead to. Metropole, therefore, comes highly recommended.


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