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 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.