“Kafkaesque” is perhaps our most overused eponymous adjective, but in the case of Hungarian writer Ferenc Karinthy’s brilliant Metropole, there is simply no more fitting term to employ. It’s amazing that this book, written in 1970, has only recently been translated into English for the first time.
Budai, a linguist on a trip to Helsinki for a conference, mistakenly lands in an unknown, crushingly-overcrowded city where people speak an utterly incomprehensible language. Signs, symbols, art, food, religion, all bare a resemblance to a vaguely pan-European culture, but the populous appears to be a mixture of races from all over the world. His frustrations slowly morph into panic then resignation as his inability to communicate drains away his assurance and dignity in the claustrophobic atmosphere amongst the indifferent, if not outright hostile multitudes.
Eventually he begins to wonder if everyone else around him is just as trapped as he is. It’s hard not to see the novel as an allegory of life in the Eastern Bloc. The original title of the book is “Epépé” which is one of the ever-shifting names Budai applies to the single person he manages to maintain the thinnest tendril of a relationship with. The fact that her name shifts seemingly unselfconsciously on Biadu’s part suggests his unknowing abidance at the cusp of some dreamworld. It’s perhaps telling that the Hungarian title focuses more on this one human relationship than the dehumanizing metropolis of the English translation. It hints at the ultimate hope of salvation which is perhaps the most un-Kafkaesque aspect of the entire book.