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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Karinthy Ferenc

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To purchase Metropole

Title: Metropole
Author: Karinthy Ferenc
Genre: Novel
Written: 1970 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 236 pages
Original in: Hungarian
Availability: Metropole - US
Metropole - UK
Metropole - Canada
Metropole - India
Epépé - France
Épépé - Italia
Metrópolis - España
  • Hungarian title: Epepe
  • Translated by George Szirtes

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Our Assessment:

B+ : enjoyably spun-out scenario

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
New Humanist . 5-6/2008 Jonathan Derbyshire
El País . 1/1/2011 Rosa Montero

  From the Reviews:
  • "Translated with beautiful economy by George Szirtes, Karinthyís allegory of languagelessness certainly merits a place in the pantheon of Mittel-european dystopian modernism." - Jonathan Derbyshire, New Humanist

  • "Es uno de esos libros singulares, una mirada única, una ambiciosa parábola del mundo. (...) La historia resulta chistosa y movería a la risa si el trasfondo no fuera tan acongojante." - Rosa Montero, El País

  • "I donít know when Iíve read a more perfect novel -- a dynamically helpless hero (in the line of Kafka), and a gorgeous spiral of action, nothing spare, nothing wrong, inventive and without artifice." - Michael Hofmann, Times Literary Supplement (27/11/2009)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The premise of Metropole is simple enough: Hungarian linguist Budai is set to go to a conference in Helsinki but gets on the wrong plane. When he disembarks he finds himself in a place where no one understands anything he says -- in any number of languages -- and where they speak a language completely foreign to him. He only notices something is wrong once he is in town, and though he does manage to get a room at a hotel everything remains essentially foreign.
       Try as he might, Budai can't find anyone who can understand him, and try as he might the local language defeats him as well. He has been rendered languageless, and while some very basic forms of communication are possible they don't get him very far -- and certainly not out of this place. It is the ultimate in alienation-scenarios: despite constantly being in a mass of people (wherever this is, it is a very crowded, busy place) he has no idea where he is or how to escape and get back home, and there is no one he can speak to. Budai is an island unto himself in a mass of humanity, the ultimate outsider.
       Karinthy spins this idea out fairly well, with Budai setting out to find information, or the airport, or anyone who can help him. He gets himself arrested, figuring the authorities would try to deal with him, but that doesn't work. He wanders everywhere he can, but typically that doesn't lead him anywhere (or, in the case of following a herd of cattle, leads him someplace rather unpleasant -- an abattoir). It is a wonderful hopeless nightmare-scenario.
       Budai does catch the eye of one of a lift girl at his hotel, but predictably can't even figure out her name; he does try to get her to teach him the basics of the language, but that doesn't get them very far. The impossibility of any true connexion is evident even here: the two are intimate, but remain unbridgeably far apart. At one point:

He tried to console her by stroking her but thanks to his clumsiness the movement came out all wrong and he found himself like an idiot clutching her elbow, not knowing what to do with it.
       Clutching elbows is about the best he can do. Despite putting his scholarly skills to best use, the language remains beyond him, and without the language there's little hope of anything else. He does find he can get work if he has to (as he does, once his money runs out) but for the most he is the outsider who will never be able to get in.
       Budai almost hopes that this is all part of some plot against him, that he was abducted to this place and is being kept here by someone out, for some reason to get him, because:
If, on the other hand, it was only blank stares and mere indifference that were detaining him -- which looked more likely -- there was only negative energy to draw on, an immobility that would prevent him attracting anyone's attention or interest. And how, in that case, was he to extricate himself from this tepid slough of feeling when there was nothing to cling to, no firm ground on which to set his feet ?
       But, of course, Metropole is also an allegory, and this tepid slough is the human condition itself ..... There is no way out -- just the illusion of hope (which Karinthy does ultimately grant his character).
        The linguist-angle is deceptive: it allows Karinthy to set his character trying, very professionally, to go about solving this dilemma -- in his efforts, for example, at decoding the written language, like any scholar would. But the impossibility of communication is a universal, with Budai's situation just an ironical extreme.
       Only once does Budai encounter that which he is probably seeking: it is an ugly scene, but it is one of connexion between two people -- and yet:
     This time Budai made an exception and did not try to work out what was happening. Even if he had known the language he would probably have made little sense of it: it was a private matter, hopeless and infinitely complex, completely alien as far as he was concerned. It was nothing to do with him and he felt no desire to know more.
       But it all has nothing to do with him, not just this obvious scene, and he remains entirely apart, and always will. Karinthy's evocation of Budai's linguistic isolation is just an extreme example of every individual's complete social isolation. In everyday life we have the words (and go through the motions), yet really don't get any farther with one another than Budai does. (Written in 1970 in Hungary, the book surely made its point even more obviously to that audience: Budai's story begins with him setting out for abroad (and to the West) -- a freedom that many Hungarians could only dream of at that time --, yet finds himself in a stupefying, uncomprehending world; perhaps Karinthy's Hungarian readers took heart in the notion that utter alienation is, indeed, everywhere.)
       Though fairly obvious, Metropole is an enjoyable allegory, Karinthy spinning out Budai's nightmare quite well. Worthwhile.

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Metropole: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Hungarian author Karinthy Ferenc lived 1921 to 1992.

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© 2009-2011 the complete review

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