November 29, 2009

METROPOLE

by Ferenc Karinthy
236 pages, Telegram Publishing

Review by Dave Loftus

Aside from toothbrush salesman, trapeze artist and manatee, one other thing I am certainly not is a problem-solver. Be it through stubbornness or negligence I’ll find a way to rid myself of responsibility without one hint of improving anything. Nevertheless, even I was perturbed by the challenge set out in Ferenc Karinthy’s 1970 dystopia, Metropole, a book you have, without exception, never heard of.

On his way to a linguist’s conference in Helsinki (a common fantasy I’m sure you’ll agree) Budai ends up travelling on the wrong plane to a whopping great city whose location he cannot identify, whose language he cannot decipher and whose bustling population don’t give a rat’s posterior. Imagine a Swahili Narnia but made entirely from metaphorical kicks to the crotch.

Big deal! I hear you screech. I’d find the info desk and be flying home in time for dawn crumpets. Well our good friend Karinthy has pre-planned your snooty remarks, so less of the sass. Fuelled by desperation, Budai launches himself into a logical and often ingenious mission to escape from the garbled, foreign world. Reading his methods is like solving a puzzle. I don’t mean those frustrating brainteasers that reduce you to tears or Google but the ones that get you genuinely thrilled. Budai tries one avenue of investigation. It’s blocked. He follows another. It’s pruned. From hotel staff to the police, nobody can help him; even the coins are designed in such a way to prevent comprehension of the country’s moniker. As each branch of inquiry shrivels to nothing, it dawns on you that he might just be stuck forever behind the language barrier to end all language barriers.

As Budai duels despair and arm-wrestles apathy, you can’t help but root for the guy. We see in him the same isolation and yearning to escape one’s rut that we’ve all felt at one point. Now I love reading about idiots trying to solve a problem. It’s what makes comedy great. However, with more serious writing I want a protagonist of intelligence. No crappy clich├ęs and contrivance. Just get to the meat. In this respect, Budai is perfect. Resourceful and savvy yet arguably a blank slate, he allows us to imagine if we were sharing his plight, while also giving us the opportunity to ponder a smug ‘yeah, I would’ve thought of that’.

The beauty of the story, in a move similar to that other great Central European writer Franz Kafka, comes from absence, a stunning void, the idea of building a narrative with one monolithic foundation missing. In Kafka’s The Trial the unmentioned piece was the crime that Joseph K had supposedly committed. In Metropole, Karinthy has removed the actual location of the actual bloody location, taking us instead to an unbearably overcrowded city where everything is turmoil.

And what a city! In the decades since Orwell and Huxley poured out the two notorious dystopias of 1984 and Brave New World, literature has had an uneasy relationship with distancing itself from these worlds. Karinthy on the other hand manages to whip up a universe that is frightening in the way only a lost traveller knows how. Thundering with a myriad of confusions, the urban sprawl is a baffling, relentless maze for Budai. It has a metro system, it has a dentist, it has a market, but everything is like a bad dream. The streets seethe with an interminable cultural flood and nuggets of utter mystery are occasionally thrown up, presented to baffle readers and kick-start the sense of otherworldliness whenever things get too comforting.

Emotional connection comes in the form of the hotel’s lift operator, who Budai clumsily befriends early on in the novel. Although the guttural difficulty of the woman’s language prevents Budai from even discovering her true name (it sounds different each time she says it), her presence and relationship with the main character form a very human core, preventing things from descending into a hollow yarn of confusion, a torture of a character, a world of crotch-kicks.

Translated from the original Hungarian by George Szirtes, the man has done an excellent job. The vocabulary is masterfully infused with that odd kind of European writing one comes across, simplistic yet evocative; a world of yards, bureaucrats, hags and commandants. Funny, gripping, puzzling, haunting and mad as a March hatter, Metropole is a treat for readers who fancy something a shade off the norm. Like Budai, you’ll soon find yourself poring over the insanity towards the galloping climax, all the while striving to unlock the mysteries of the metropolis.

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