Ever felt you were removed from familiar, comfortable environs, confronted suddenly with a thronging Babel that gives you a sense of vertigo? In his 1970 novel, Epepe (published in English translation in 2008 as Metropole), Hungarian writer Ferenc Karinthy (son of the famous Hungarian humorist Frigyes Karinthy) plumbs the depths of despair, longing, and desire that can occur when a familiar touchstone (in this case, intelligible language) is suddenly removed from us. What would we do in Budai’s place? Would we manage to cope even half as well as he does when he is unable to converse with anyone in this strange city in which he has suddenly found (and lost) himself?
Metropole follows the linguist Budai’s tortured search for a common ground in an utterly foreign city. In some ways, his quest can be read as a metaphor for a Hell in which one is alone, surrounded by others who are distinctly other in idiomatic expression. There is much to be said for that viewpoint:
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. Thinking this, he picked himself up, broke through the people crowding at the entrance and left. (p. 104)
But there is something else at play beside a potential metaphor for a linguistic Hell:
Budai liked children and was generally touched by them but he had never seen so many all together and the sight confused and terrified him. He looked to escape, seeking an exit from the clinic. He was losing patience, wanting to see no more babies, worrying what would happen when the present batch grew up and joined the already teeming hordes in the streets. (p. 158)
Several times Karinthy’s narrator refers to “hordes,” or to the masses of people who move through the nameless, foreign city. Are these masses benign or is there something driving them?
The people in the street moved aside but not very far, remaining close to the tank, chanting slogans at its invisible crew, raising their arms in oaths of allegiance. Then they sand their anthem again:
Tchetety top debette
Etek glö tchri fefé… (p. 213)
As the story progresses, hints emerge as to what is truly happening, possible foretellings that might support an interpretation that some made in the past quarter-century that Metropole might be a disguised critique of the Hungarian Communist regime after the failed 1956 uprising (and its Czechoslovakian echo in 1968), but this is too facile of an argument. Certainly, the alienation reflected within Budai’s story could be read in that fashion, but with the sense of the character’s futility as he continually butts his head up against an impenetrable linguistic barrier (his prior role as linguist proving to be ironic on several levels), some readers might find closer parallels with Kafka’s work than with that of an Orwell or London:
It was as though the combatants themselves had changed: he couldn’t see anyone he had fought with. On the other hand, there were ever more mysterious, suspicious-looking figures, some of them demagogues of the first order. That that dissolute, bearded man with the pockmarked face who looked strangely familiar: he was halfway through directing the hanging of one of the prisoners. (p. 226)
By this time, simple explanations or metaphors have to be eschewed. The confusion, the true babbling sense of the other people around Budai, these find their echo in the larger, more violent outpouring of the latter stages of the novel. One cannot these two elements; each is a reflection of the other. Overlaying this is a sense of irreality, where this might possibly be a very unsettling dream, although one (and Budai) certainly fears it will prove to be otherwise. Metropole’s unnerving atmosphere defies easy categorizations. Its narrative can rattle unwary readers who are not prepared for the twists contained within the story. When the story “ends,” one might wonder if one is “escaping” or merely going into the next stage. Metropole certainly is a tale that cannot be forgotten easily, as it lingers in the subconscious, spawning dreams in its wake. Highly recommended.