To write of Ferenc Karinthy's Metropole is to emphasize, as Nietzsche reminds us, that we need history, “but not the way a spoiled loafer in the garden of knowledge needs it.” Metropole, like Kafka's The Trial, Karin Boye's Kallocain, Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984, is a dystopian vision, a hell with no exit, the experience of the everyday when the normal has become monstrous. At no point does Karinthy mention Hungary as a client state of the Soviet Union nor the events that led to the Hungarian uprising of 1956, but his book is inconceivable without them.
Budai (in Hungarian, a native of Buda) is a Hungarian linguist attending a conference in Helsinki, but at the airport in Budapest he goes through the wrong gate, gets on the wrong plane and arrives in a city where no one understands him, despite the impressive array of languages he brings to bear. Driven along by what seems an endless, incessant rush throughout the city, he finds himself at a hotel and is given a room. He needs to return to the airport. He has to phone his family and colleagues to tell them what has happened. He is hungry. Queues are everywhere and people routinely push one another aside. Even if he reaches the head of a line, he cannot make himself understood.
He spends days trying to make sense of their language, because he knows if he cannot make himself understood, he will not be able to leave. At one point, he dials phone numbers at random, hoping to find someone whose language he recognizes. What someone said yesterday does not seem to mean the same thing today (the rationale of totalitarian regimes). He learns the names of fruits and vegetables in groceries by putting labels together with produce. At his insistence, the elevator operator in the hotel, who is the only one in the city who shows some interest in him, teaches him numbers. He does not understand why. Perhaps she sees him to be as unhappy as she is. Everyone he sees is distraught, anxious, frenzied.
His disorientation does not lessen. How does one live when every day is strange and the strange everyday? His encyclopedic knowledge has been rendered useless. When he runs out of money, he gets work only illegal migrants can, his only option since he has no visa and the hotel has taken his passport. When he can no longer afford the hotel, he sleeps at the market where he stocks produce and roams the city in search of contact of some kind, a sense that he is not alone. One day he finds himself stripping naked at some kind of religious ceremony just to be doing what others are doing.
Only the elevator operator—Bebe, Tyetye, Epepe, Etete, Ebebe, Djedje, Tete, he is never certain of her name—sustains him. She talks to him, though they cannot understand one another. They become lovers, and lovers do not need words. (You understand? he asks her. You understand, she answers. No, you don't, he says. You understand, she repeats.) Love is inherently subversive—it calls the everyday into question and can be a form of resistance against it. By the end of the novel, Epepe has given him hope, even if none is possible (“That there was nothing that was not them”).
That he has become invisible, like most of the working class, has made the middle-class Budai a member of the proletariat, whose anger is directed against the totalitarian rule of the government. (“The violence of the violated,” as Isabel Fonseca writes.) Revolution breaks out and the normally pacifist Budai joins the revolutionaries, pistol in hand, only to see it defeated quickly by the government. He escapes capture (and execution) and sees a brook that he knows, just knows, will become a stream, the stream a river, and the river a sea, where he will find a harbor, a ship. “God be with you, Epepe,” he thinks. “He was full of confidence. He would soon be home.”
Karinthy speaks to us from the last circle of hell, holding out, if only implicitly, love as the only possible answer. “He has undercut the negativity of the world with the hopelessness of his fantasy,” Theodor Adorno characterizes Alban Berg, and we may say it of Karinthy as well.
Robert Buckeye has had two works of fiction published, Pressure Drop and The Munch Case, and has written on film and art as well as literature.