Postcard from my bookshelf #4

One of the things I loved about my Year of Reading the World was the way it brought me into contact with booklovers around the planet. In the five years it’s been going, this blog has had views from more than 230 territories – far more places than the 196 UN-recognised nations (plus Taiwan) that I set out to read books from in 2012.

It’s been brilliant hearing from readers in so many regions and the international nature of the project is a constant reminder to me of the potential stories have to connect us across cultural, geographical, political and religious divides.

However, one nation stands head and shoulders above the rest in terms of its interest in the quest. Roughly a third of all the views this website has ever had have come from the US. That’s three times as many as those from the next most-interested country: my homeland, the UK. Indeed, it was the interest of US-based TV channel CNN International that first brought the project onto the radar of many people around the world.

As such, I decided that this month’s translated book gift should go to someone from the US, in recognition of that nation’s enthusiasm for the idea of reading the world.

As you might imagine from the stats, there have been lots of American entries for this project. These include people of all ages and backgrounds, many of whom have inspiring things to say about what books have done for them. There are aspiring writers, librarians, students, teachers, translators and many others in the mix. And there are a number of people who have faced or are facing extraordinary personal challenges.

I was struggling to pick a winner. But then one comment caught my eye and I knew in an instant which book I wanted to send to that person.

The message came from Jane Banks, a university professor-turned-book editor in New Orleans. She wrote this:

I mostly edit books by non-native writers. I have edited two books on the war in the Balkans, both translated from Albanian, one Ph.D. dissertation by a student from Iran, a book about utopian urban planning in Europe and Central America by a professor from Portugal, and my current book by a professor in Australia on video piracy and online culture in her native China.

I love these projects because they give me a window on other countries and cultures and because armchair traveling is next best to the real thing. I would love to read books, fiction or non fiction, that have a significant sense of place. I live in New Orleans and find that books set here often use the city itself as a character. I’d like to read books like that, from any country at all.

Immediately, I thought of the novel Metropole by Hungarian writer Ferenc Karinthy. It’s an extraordinary book in which a linguist accidentally gets on the wrong plane and finds himself in a country where, unusually for him, he can make neither head nor tail of the language. Disorientated and increasingly anxious, he wanders around a city that becomes ever more menacing and strange – a character in its own right, just as Jane describes.

So there you are, Jane. This one’s on its way to you. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

There will be a bonus postcard from my bookshelf this month in celebration of World Book Day. Keep your eyes peeled for an announcement on 23 April. 

And if you’d like a chance to receive a postcard from my bookshelf, visit the project post and leave a comment telling me a bit about you and what you like to read. The next regular recipient will be announced on May 15.

Hungary: lost in transit

This was a recommendation from Stewart of booklit.com. As the driving force behind not only booklit.com 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 Bubai 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 Bubai 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 Bubai 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 Bubai’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 Bubai 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 Bubai 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)