Tuesday 15 April 2014

Metropole (by Ferenc Karinthy) - A review


Location: Hungary (sort of)
Author: Ferenc Karinthy
Publisher/Year: Telegram Books/2008 (Original in Hungarian in 1970)
Genre: Science Fiction (Dystopia)
Theme: One day, all of a sudden, a man finds himself unable to understand a word of what people are saying around him. In a society on the cusp of upheaval, he struggles with day to day existence in a strange city without any semblance of comprehension

I love dystopian futures. Okay, I mean that I love stories about dystopian futures. This is a book that has been compared to 1984 and The Trial, and in ways combines aspects of that, with a sense of mystery confusion not unlike that faced by the protagonist in The Trial and the strange, alien, dystopian world of 1984. Basically, I really like it. It may not be as good as those works, but in many ways comes close and it's a shame that this book has largely remained unknown because it was written during a time when Hungary was under the cosh of the Soviet Union and took nearly 40 years to get an English translation.

The tale revolves around Budai, a Hungarian linguist due to attend a conference, who ends up in a strange and unknown city where none of the many, MANY languages he knows seems to be of any use. Whether this is because he's truly in a place with a different language or he experiences a Kafkaesque situation with his world suddenly being altered, one could argue that's open to interpretation. He somehow gets himself to a hotel, but struggles to cope with daily tasks, with only the hotel's lift/elevator operator (whose name he can't be sure about, but whom he mostly calls 'Epepe' or something similar) willing to help him as he sets about trying to make sense of the language and his new world. As his much vaunted knowledge proves to be useless, Budai finds himself relegated to blue collar jobs and becomes part of a proletariat at odds with the government. The revolution comes, the revolution gets crushed easily, but Budai manages to escape, and himself with a possible option that may lead to escape and a chance to return 'home,' wherever that may be.

In all honesty, there is nothing to tell where this is set, but based on my reading it seemed more like a problem with Budai's world changing, so I'm willing to stick with the starting country as the base. And the book and protagonist are Hungarian, anyway! The book itself was written in a Hungary still very much dominated by the Soviet influence, and the tale with its political implications is meant to reflect the Hungarian setting of Karinthy's time. The characters of Budai and Epepe are strongly written, which is made all the more impressive given that the PoV character of Budai is the only one whose language the reader can understand. There is a sensation coming through that language and communication go beyond mere words, as do the all too real settings of the world around oneself.

It's a strong story, one that explores the roots of language, of love beyond language, of class struggles. It's strangely haunting, and the language (while translated in my case) conveys this strongly. I wish I could read it in the original, because I suspect some added starkness would contribute to the haunting, dystopian feel even more.

For those of you who are into dystopian stories, this is a must read, more so given the Soviet-dominated setting it was written in that contributed to a very personal feel to the book.

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