Adventures in Hungarian Literature: Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy

After last month’s foray into the dizzying heights of Danish literature with the rather excellent novel The Procedure I’m continuing my imaginary tour of the world (literarily) with another legend in his own language, Ferenc Karinthy. Besides being a playwright, journalist and water polo champion Karinthy was a fairly prolific author, with more than twelve novels to his name. In the slightly patchy manner in which such things are done only one of these books has been translated into English, and a mere sixteen years after he died…

The novel concerns Budai, an academic linguist who is inadvertently and inexplicably waylaid on his way to a conference in Helsinki and finds himself adrift in a country whose languages bears no resemblance, in sound or sign, to any that he knows. The city which hems him in, indistinctly foreign in its vaguely pan-European fashions and styles and more broadly global in its ethnic makeup, is vast and sprawling, extending unbroken for miles and miles through its subway system. Its customs are unfamiliar, its people almost uniformly uninterested and there is no trace of the world beyond it.

As the first Karinthy novel to be translated into English I have no proper point of comparison but while the prose may sing in the original Hungarian it falls flat here. The vast majority of the book is fairly staid and prosaic, with rather abrupt sentences detailing every action Budai undertakes, every stray thought that crosses his mind. It’s not that the book is dull, merely exhaustive, and only really comes to life in those sections where he is attempting to piece together something meaningful from the language he’s baffled by.

Partly this is a problem with the premise: there are so many ways in which most people, stranded in a city where we could not speak the language, would attempt to find a commonality to exploit or even a means by which to escape, that Karinthy is forced to justify and explain away the holes in the premise. This, alongside Budai’s understandable professional curiosity, is why the quest to decode the mysterious language consumes his desire to escape, and why the references to his wife and small son become sparer and more infrequent.

In some ways it would perhaps have been better if the novel just to ignore the impracticalities in the premise and focus on the underlying ideas, but even there we might run into difficulties. I had a little trouble latching on to the central metaphor of Metropole, are we looking at the faceless impersonality of the modern metropolis, a place where we are inured and blind to the suffering and distress of our fellows, or is it an examination of language, possibly even Hungarian itself, which is something of an oddity amongst local tongues? The set-up, and the direct address to possible questions of the supernatural or scientifically impossible, speaks to the presence of an intended allegorical value, but its precise nature is somewhat obscured.

It’s a frustrating book, there’s enough interesting and unique about it to hold the interest but that even this is marred by what, considering his success in Hungary, I’m assuming is an unrepresentatively leaden translation (In fairness I’ve elsewhere seen it referred to as a translation of “beautiful economy ”, so each to their own). The idea of language being stripped away from someone, both entirely as speech and seemingly as totally in gesture and broadest mime, is undoubtedly powerful, especially when it is something they’ve previously placed absolute trust in, but there’s… something… lacking in the execution, that makes it a lesser light than the Kafka and the Orwell that the quote on the back cover makes it out to be.

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~ by Thom Dicomidis on 14/07/2011.

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