In a moment of distraction, a linguist named Budai slips through the wrong door at the terminal, and, after boarding his plane, settles in for a long nap during the flight. When he wakes, he is hustled onto a shuttle bus and taken to a hotel where he finds it is impossible to make himself understood or understand anyone, despite his familiarity with dozens of spoken languages. Soon it becomes apparent that he has not landed in Helsinki, his original destination, but instead in an unknown, and ultimately unknowable, land - thus begins Budai's lonely, frustrating trek through the maze of 'Metropole', Ferenc Karinthy's only translated work up this time.
Other reviewers - and my own dim memory - insist on comparing 'Metropole' to Franz Kafka's work, and in some ways, I think that, for once, it's an apt comparison. It's most apparent in the idea of the bewildered man trying to make sense out of a society that is alien to him (or he to it), with the critical keys of information that would allow him to operate within that society seeming to dangle just out of his, and the readers, reach. Other comparisons will depend on the reader's assessment of what exactly Kafka was about. Whereas I've always thought of his works as very personal reflections of his percieved incompatability with life, Karinthy's novel is more universal - an example of a common man and the connections to society that shape our identity, connections that are excrutiatingly obvious only once they are severed.
'Metropole' then follows Budai as he tries to make sense of his situation and return home. No attempt at communication is open to him though, whether through a language he recognizes nor through any try at rudimentary sign language. One of the characteristics of the city in which Budai is trapped is its crush of people - everywhere there are crowds, everywhere one must line up for the most basic service, and nowhere will anyone take the time to listen to Budai's strange jabbering. Even when he attempts to walk away from the city, it appears to continue on and on, with no interuption, suburbs connecting back into proper towns with no end in sight.
There is an old story-telling adage for plot development, which advises the author to put his characters in a tree, and then throw stones at them. The last part of the rule is to get them down, but Karinthy may not have been aware of it, since he continues to pelt Budai throughout the book, leaving only a small glimmer of hope near the end. And through it all, Budai degenerates as the time goes by, first be being turned out, for lack of money, from the hotel to which he was originally brought; to sleeping on the street and working as a day laborer in an open-air market. From there, it is too easy to spend his meager wages at the closest bar and let a creeping weariness take over.
This edition of 'Metropole' by Telegram Books has no introduction, and the biographical detail on Ferenc Karinthy is scarce - born in Budapest in 1921, the son of Frigyes Karinthy, author of over a dozen books, and a water polo champion. 'Metropole', first published as 'Epepe', was written in 1970, which surprised me - considering only the artwork on the front cover, I expected something from the twenties or thirties. Translated from the Hungarian by the poet George Szirtes (who also translated some of Sandor Marai's and Gyula Krudy's work), the prose of Karinthy is utilitarian, unlike the fanciful, simile-laden writing of Krudy - better, I think, to illustrate the deadening effect of the city as opposed to Krudy's rustic scenes. But it is not Karinthy's workmanlike writing (by no means inadequate) that is the reason to seek out or to skip 'Metropole'. Instead, the novel is more like a long fairy tale, or perhaps an account of a particularly vivid dream, which is an absorbing look at the relation between identity and society. It also comes bearing blurbs like 'masterpiece' and 'classic', which I think overshoot the mark, although I did enjoy it - more so even than Krudy, whom I also liked, but to be fair, these two Hungarian authors wrote at different times for a different audience. And truthfully, there is really nothing to associate 'Metropole' with Hungary at all. If anything, the closest it comes is in the industrialized and unfriendly atmosphere that, in my ignorance, I associate with Eastern Europe at that time. Not a classic, but interesting still. 4 1/2 stars, rounded up.