In Denial: Metropole, Ferenc Karinthy; Hungarian
The text of Metropole as a novel can be viewed from a number of standpoints. The first of stems from the fact that Budai, the protagonist, is a linguist. As a linguist his knowledge and speaking ability of a number of languages is nothing less than astonishing, his reading ability more so.
What sort of linguist he is not revealed to us. Most linguists specialize in one or a few languages or apply their linguistic training to their native tongue. Translators are usually those who wish to extend their knowledge of languages to enable them to have access t0 meanings and interpretations of the source work they are translating. There is no suggestion from Karinthy that this is Budi’s purpose. We are left then with an enigma as to what Budai’s purpose professionally is.
The setting that Budai finds himself in, is one where he is stranded in a city where the spoken and written tongue is unknown and unintelligible to him. Perhaps what drives linguists like Budai is a hubristic attempt to be a sort of universal citizen able to move freely around the planet, confident that wherever they are communication will be possible. For linguists such as Budai a nightmare might be to find themselves in a situation where they are quite unable to communicate with other human beings. This is the first suggestion in the novel that Budai is trapped in a dream which extends for the length of the novel and by novel’s end he has still not awoken from. There is a strong Freudian aspect to this fear if indeed linguists have such a fear.
More strongly than the incomprehensibility of what is written and spoken around him is the suggestion that he is in the middle of a nightmare by the fact that there appears to be no way out of it and Budai exhibits a sense of helplessness in being able to find the strength to escape from it.
There is little surprise in the fact that Karinthy’s novel has taken so long to have been translated into English, 40 years. The setting is not sympathetic to English readers since the setting, style and occurrences in Metropole are not ones that English speakers will easily identify with. As a dystopian novel the setting concerns expressed by Budai and his inventor are clearly Middle European and there is a strong sense of the settings, dress and behaviors being those of a Communist country.
There is an abiding suspicion that were Budai to speak Hungarian he would find those around him able to respond, albeit the language’s script, which Karithy has stripped of all diacriticals, essential in Hungarian, would still be unreadable. The hermetic nature of the city in which Budai finds himself in and the nonsensical babbling of its inhabitants further suggest the setting is Communist Budapest, as does the protagonist’s name, and those babblings the nonsense of Soviet speech. The naked nature of this being a psychological novel and one that might be autobiographical, the author himself being a linguist, might be seen as a denial of the reality of the life around Karithy wrought with a sense guilt derived from the fact that Karithy was a fence sitter, one who took neither one side nor the other. One also wonders if Karithy unconsciously adopts this babble like language as a mark of failure to come to descriptive terms with how his life actually was, both public and private. Of note is that the novel in Hungarian is entitled Epepe, the only person in the novel with whom Budai has any kind of relationship. Once more we are faced with the unbelievable. Throughout the history of mankind, men and women have fallen in love despite lacking any understanding of each other’s language. Budai gets angry and violent as did Karithy with his wife. You do not have to be a linguist to know that, if you are unable to understand another person, never mind someone you are in love with, you begin by pointing as objects, asking their names, pointing to the hands, the fingers, the lips, for example. To have so named the novel is incomprehensible.
The novel has gathered lavish praise in certain quarters and has been compared to Kafka’s Amerika and George Orwell’s 1984, but these comparisons are misplaced and Karinthy’s book in few senses matches such works. The novel is deeply flawed. No masterpiece such as those cited has such flaws.
Metropole is surely a dystopian novel and to achieve this the story must have in it a large dose of the fantastic. But, and this is huge but, to accept fantasy we are asked to suspend disbelief. If we are not able to then the story fails and has no attraction. This novel fails because the central character attempts to apply logic to the situation he finds himself in. This is fatal. With his attempt we too are asked to apply logic. In finding that he, Budai, fails to apply even the basic logic he demands of himself means that we consistently fail to suspend disbelief.
Why, we ask, doesn’t Budai make an attempt to return to the airport by which he arrived in the city. At the airport he will find people able to communicate with him. In 1984 and in Kafka’s novels, particularly Metamorphosis, which Metropole most closely resembles, we never question why it is that, for example, Gregor wakes up to find himself transformed into a cockroach. In all the great novels which commentators have compared this one to we are happy to accept the situation that the protagonist finds himself in. We are never asked to question the logic of the setting or the situation. But Budai keeps asking, why does he find himself where he is. He never finds for himself an answer and we don’t either.
He exhibits a postmodern sense of awareness of his predicament and the central drive of the novel is for him to free himself from this nightmare, to get out of it. As readers we are given no such satisfaction though we surely share his desire to get out. But Karinthy does not allow this. The novel ends … no, it doesn’t end … it tails off. Karinthy has created a half finished bridge which not only leads nowhere but comes to an abrupt end far from its intended destination whatever that might be. We put down the book in disgust. No denouement is yet another of the severe flaws of the book.
There are others. Having imaginatively created the setting for Budai’s predicament, the author fails to provide any development. Budi wanders around and around and scenes merely repeat themselves. For example, squares always are small and have a fountain in the centre. Everything around Budai has a sameness. No descriptions, no distinguishing features other than that places are big and anonymous, a man is described as old, a woman whom Budai befriends as being young, attractive and having blonde hair. The setting is lifeless. There is movement but that movement is akin to watching the waters of a river flow. Sure, the water moves, but our standpoint is never allowed to change.
Beyond there being no development the language is monotonous, colourless, boring. None of this is true of 1984 or any of the great dystopian novels with which Metropole has been compared. This reader found himself skipping pages without any attempt to read them, only glancing to see if there is any change. The expectation that Budi will find himself a way out is not met.
Reading Metropole is like reading a detective story where the same clues are reiterated page after page and the detective is not allowed to solve the mystery. There you have Metropole in a nutshell.
But there is more. In attempting in reading a number of reviews to find a reviewer who made some sense of what this reader did not, who had some praise for some worthwhile aspect, all all of them do is what reviews always do, give a synopsis of the plot. What a senseless activity. Most of us do not read for plot. Worse, those reviewers who went beyond giving a synopsis merely repeated the opinion of others, whoever they are, who have spoken of Metropole as being a great novel. This is apparently a received opinion that those reviewers swallow wholesale. It is not. Nor do they give any ground for believing that it is. Tellingly not one talked of what they felt about the book.
A number of reviewers have spoken of a work which Metropole reminded them of. My Marriage by Jacob Wassermann might find comparison. The novel is highly autobiographical and Wassermann openly describes a failed marriage, his, and attachment to a woman whom he was quite unable to free himself from, a nightmare situation not unlike Budai’s. There are distinct differences, though. Wassermann has a self honesty which Karithy lacks, and the descriptive powers of Wassermann are excruciating. One is spellbound, indeed hypnotized, by the horror which is his life with the woman, her behaviour outrageous as to be all but unbelievable. Now, that is an achievement.
How can Metropole, a book with little literary merit, be compared to those that have it in abundance?
Malcolm D B Munro
Saturday 3 December, 2016
Filed under: Arts, Book Review, Media, poetry, songs, stories