Hungary: lost in transit

This was a recommendation from Stewart of As the driving force behind not only but also the World Literature Forum, Stewart knows a thing or two about global literature, so I was keen to see what his suggestion would be like.

Written in 1970 but not translated into English until 2008, Ferenc Karinthy’s Metropole tells the story of Hungarian linguist Budai who inadvertently gets on a flight to the wrong destination and, instead of arriving at the conference he is due to speak at, finds himself stranded in a mysterious country where he cannot make himself understood. Bewildered and increasingly desperate, he must bring all his knowledge, academic training, cunning and instincts to bear in an attempt to crack the cryptic language of the citizens and find his way home.

Karinthy is a skilful storyteller. Sweeping the reader along over the obstacles to credibility – the absence of anyone with knowledge of any of the two dozen languages Budai speaks and the apparent indifference of the hotel staff to his plight, not to mention the whole business of getting there in the first place – he creates a compelling work.

He does this by embracing the unbelievable nature of the story and stretching its boundaries even further: the office block under construction near the hotel grows at an impossible rate, for example, and the city seethes in a ‘never-ending rush hour’. As a result, like the protagonist, we are never quite sure where we are and find ourselves wondering with Budai whether he is ‘on planet earth at all or in some other part of the cosmos’ – or indeed in an imaginary world where the rules are different from our own.

This sense of disorientation is heightened by Budai’s linguistic expertise. Watching a man used to navigating his way between cultures as easily as most of us get around our houses try and fail to achieve even the most basic level of communication is gripping.

At times it can be very funny, as when the hero is ‘all but dancing with rage […], his arms threshing the air’, but as the book goes on and Budai retreats into reticence as a result of the continual rebuffs he encounters it becomes increasingly tragic and disturbing. The unmaking of his confidence and sense of identity develops into a chilling parable about the rapidity with which all of us can be made to abandon our skills and self-belief in the face of sustained rejection and frustration.

If I had to name a gripe, it would be that the pacing is a little odd towards the middle of the book. As Budai circles the communication problem, returning again and again to the same doubtful solutions like someone trying to break into a locked house, the narrative becomes a touch repetitive.

But this is nitpicking. Overall this is a thoroughly engrossing and masterful work about the potentially life and death consequences of not being able to communicate. It is the only book I’ve read where all dialogue bar the words spoken by the protagonist is gobbledygook, yet it is also one of the most thorough and powerful celebrations of language in all its forms. A joy.

Metropole (Epepe) by Ferenc Karinthy, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes (Telegram Books, 2012)

Amended on July 30 2018 to correct the spelling of the protagonist’s name.

28 responses

  1. Neat to read about a Hungarian writer just as I cross the Austria-Hungary border on a train! Hungary is a neat country, if you ever want the experience of everyone speaking a strange language that’s impossible to understand, it works. Hungarian is a Finno-Ugric language that’s tangentially related to Finnish, but no other currently spoken languages. Its phonemes, grammar, and structure are complete mysteries to me.

  2. i think this is a great idea, one book from each country. Although i don’t limit myself to reading just what’s new and popular today, i’m thinking that maybe i should try it, too.

  3. I have a friend who was born in a Budapest. I spent some time with him and his family not long ago and I have to say, Hungarian is a beautiful language to listen to. I couldn’t understand a word but I loved hearing it. I’ll definitely be looking into this book and I’ll let you know what I think of it.

  4. This is truly amazing, that you read something from a hungarian writer! But this is not a very popular novel here in Hungary, this is the first time I heard about it, despite I’m a hungarian…

    Let me recommend a true gem, which is one of the most popular hungarian novel in the world: Imre Madách’s The Tragedy of Man.

    And our poems are even better than our novels, but I don’t know how many of them translated to english. It’s a tricky language, so it’s a huge challenge to translate. 🙂

  5. The idea is simply great and I, myself a thekophag (devouring books, paper or screen, all the same) envy you. You’ve got, I presume, a fairly unique view of humankind. As for Ferenc Karinthy, (Frigyes, his father is more famous here really, being an absolute master of and with words) he is a truly good author. You summed him up perfectly. The original title Epepe refers to a funny feature of the Hungarian language: we can say whole and longish sentences, or even a paragraph using words that contain only the vowel ‘e’ (like the ‘a’ in man). I am a teacher of Hungarian language and literature (plus English, four majors if you wish) turned journalist later and have a really wide list behind me (several thousand books, easily): That is not for boasting, just assure you about your choice. (BTW: Madách’s work is not a novel but a play, although a philosophic one, still not epic.) Good luck with the project, will follow the blog.

  6. Please don’t miss Karinthy’s masterpiece, That’s how YOU write, it’s a real classic, worth to read several times. Greetings from Hungary.

  7. Or if you’d like to read something easier try Rejtő Jenő/P. Howard’s Foreign Legion stories. His heroes are mostly petty criminals who’s getting involved into big things in the 1930’s Africa. My recommendations are: The Three Mousqueteers in Africa, The Stolen Runner, The Vanished Cruiser and my favorite, Dirty Fred, the Captain.

  8. Hi there, i see you’ve already received lots of new ideas about what to read, but i still would like to recommend you an other Hungarian author: Albert Wass. He is different because he represents a “little country” within a country, and that would be Transylvania (if you wish to add an other country to your list). His books and writing very unique in the way how he manages to grasp the character of a very interesting ethnic group of Transylvania: the sekler. Worth reading anything from him, you won’t be disappointed!
    Good luck and all the best to you!

    A sekler girl living in England 🙂

  9. I have a Finnish translation of the book, and it is from 1970. This is one of the favorite book of all time. In the book the main character gets lost on the way to my hometown. Well, that happens 🙂

  10. I’ve just read this book and found it fascinating. One nitpick on your review: the character is Budai, not Bubai.

  11. The Madách book is really great, I would really revommend it, too. I would also suggest ypi readfrom Magda Szabó, since you onlye readfrom men, The Man with the Golden Touch from Mór Jókai, and Thorn Castle from István Fekete.

  12. To add an absolutely outstanding female author to your list: have you come across Magda Szabó? A deep and sensitive student of human nature, her book “the Door” was reviewed by the NYT: “Magda Szabo, who died in 2007, was one of Hungary’s most important 20th-­century writers… It’s astonishing that this masterpiece should have been essentially unknown to English-­language readers for so long… suffice it to say that I’ve been haunted by this novel. Szabo’s lines and images come to my mind unexpectedly, and with them powerful emotions. It has altered the way I understand my own life….”

    She is one of my favourite authors of all time and her other books are also outstanding.

    I would also recomment Nándor Gion, who for me is of a similar calibre as Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I see that his “Soldier with Flowers” is finally available in English!

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