I’ve enjoyed looking at some Telegram books recently, and found Metropole in a local bookshop. In this unusual novel, Hungarian linguist Budai travels to Helsinki for an international conference but inadvertently is placed on a flight to an un-named and unidentifiable city, where he finds himself whisked away to an hotel without his baggage. He finds himself unable to communicate with the hotel staff despite trying several languages, and because he is so tired he decides to accept the room he is offered and to sort out revised travel plans in the morning.
So begins this labyrinthine tale of abandonment in a foreign city, every traveller’s nightmare, where nobody can recognise your language and your passport has been retained by your hotel, you have no baggage and only a limited supply of money. Karinthy has made a wonderful job of describing what happened to Budai over the next few days, and the world he creates is sufficiently Kafka-esque for it to hit all the right buttons in the nightmare stakes.
The city Budai finds himself in is vastly over-crowded. Budai is pushed and shoved every time he steps outside and returns from his exploratory expeditions bruised and aching. The shops are full and endless queues form in cafeterias and shops. Customers have to find what they want, then queue to pay for it and queue again to pick it up (echoes of Foyles bookshop in Charing Cross Road in times past). It is the same in the hotel. Budai is unable to make his problem known to the hotel staff owing to their knowledge of only their own language and as Budai makes sign language or draws little diagrams, the staff are already looking over his shoulder at the next customer.
Days pass, with the mystery of the location of the city and its strange language deepening all the time. Budai resorts to assaulting a policeman in order to get arrested: at least that way someone will take notice of him and perhaps call for an interpreter. All that happens however is a brief encounter with a casual and brutish system which spits him out again as quickly as it took him in.
Budai tries to master the language, but it seems to be as difficult as decoding an ancient Egyptian text. He steals a telephone directory, buys a book and collects leaflets in order to try to make sense of the language but this seems like one of those impossible tasks you are set in a dream, with the details hazy and fluid, and the solution just out of reach. He manages to form a relationship with a young woman who operates the hotel lift. She teaches him the number one to ten, but every day, the words seem to have changed, and Budai wonders whether there are different words for each number like the English zero, nought, “oh”, null. Even her name seems to change slightly each day so he can never quite capture it in his notebook.
I found the story quite gripping and enjoyed the nightmarish aspects to it. Anyone who travels to a foreign city knows something of the difficulty of making oneself known, and it is easy to relish the troubles that befall Budai when this is taken to excess.
There are some big themes here, the nature of language being the main one. The people of the city seem to be afflicted with a Babelesque confusion of tongues. The city is in the process of building a gigantic tower near the hotel, symptomatic perhaps of the confusion of tongues in the Genesis passage, “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech”. Linguistic understanding has become a free-flowing thing, more dependent on being the right sort of person rather than saying the right things. Budai and the lift operator (Pepe, Bebe, Ã‰bÃ©be?) can barely exchange any thoughts at all, but when unexpectedly intimate one night, a free-flowing understanding is achieved for a brief hour or so.
Budai has certainly captured the atmosphere of the city very well. It is a city gone wrong, where a population explosion has reduced everyone to just one rung above survival. The inhabitants are short-tempered, impatient, intolerant of strangers and prone to low-level cruelty. We see these tendencies in all cities but no city we know has descended to the point where every street is packed with people, and there is never a quiet time of day. Budai’s attempts to find the outer boundaries of the city fail: even when he takes a Metro to the outermost station he only sees vistas of further urban sprawl stretching to the horizon.
I enjoyed this book but was also reminded of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled in which an international composer arrives in a city to conduct a music festival and finds himself embroiled in endless diversions and encounters. While Karinthy’s work lacks some of the psychological subtlety of Ishiguro’s book, it makes up for it in the perfectly drawn sense of panic Budai experiences as he realises the depths of his predicament. Metropole deserves to be better known than it is. It is a tremendously visual book in the power of the images it creates in the mind and as I read it, I couldn’t help but think that it could be turned into a fantastic film with the right direction and casting.