Reading Ferenc Karinthy’s Metropole is like being lost in someone else’s nightmare where there are no exits. Karinthy creates an existential version of hell, stunning the reader not by blatant displays of horrifying circumstances, but by a gradual series of small failures that defeat and degrade the narrator and the reader. The narrator, Budai, takes the wrong door at the transit lounge and instead of going to Helsinki for a linguistics conference his final destination is an unknown city with an unknown language, an unknown nightmare.
Karinthy gives us no reprieve from the beginning. Budai is dropped off at an overcrowded hotel where, after he realizes he is not in Helsinki, decides that he will stay there until the next morning when he can go to the airport to catch a flight to Helsinki. And that’s when the never-ending lines begin. We wait with Budai in a long line until he finally reaches the ticket counter. After attempts to communicate with the receptionist in several languages—French, English, Finnish, Russian and German—he receives a room key after sacrificing his passport. And to another line we go with Budai, this time for the elevator. He spots a sign on the wall, written in the native language, that he attempts to find an identifying factor between this language and others—Cyrillic, Arabic, Chinese and Latin, but without any success. Oddly enough, Budai is able to recognize numbers and after stops on each floor and hoards of people getting on and off, he finds his floor and finally his room. The room resembles any other large city hotel room furnished with the usual bed, desk and bathroom. Since Budai has procured a bed for the night, hunger takes over and he ventures into the unknown city in search of sustenance. This is where Karinthy gives us description but no clues, as if Budai is an anyman in a nameless city of the future where there is no distinguishable hint of a predominant ethnicity, just a conglomeration of all races. He waits in line at a restaurant while he tries to note any physical commonalities that might suggest people from a particular region:
Unfortunately there was a queue here too, quite a long one at that, because they only let in as many guests as were leaving so it was rather slow progress. He tried to size up others in the queue without drawing attention to himself. Some were white, some coloured; right in front of him were two coal-black, wire-haired, young men, a little further off an oriental-looking, pale-yellow woman with her daughter, but there were some tall Germanic types, one tubby Mediterranean gleaming with perspiration in his camel-coloured coat, a few brown-skinned Malays, some Arab or Semitic people, and a young redheaded woman with freckles in a blue woolen jumper, carrying a tennis racquet: it was hard to tell what race or shade formed the majority here, at least in front of the restaurant.
On the streets of this nameless ‘mother city,’ Budai is pushed along, unable to resist the current crated by the crowds moving around him. We continue on with Budai in his quest for food that morphs into a string of failures due to his inability to communicate with anyone. From the first, we feel the primal expressions of “the crowd” with its disregard for the individual, its coarseness and its brutality:
Back in his room he discovered that his body was covered in blue and green bruises from the blows he had received in the street when fighting his way through the crowd. He was not only bruised but tired and shocked to realize that he had not accomplished anything and had made no contact with anyone, neither with people back home, nor with people waiting for him at his destination. Neither at home nor at Helsinki would they have any idea where he had vanished. The strangest thing though was that he himself had no clue, not for the time being anyway: he was no wiser now than he had been on arriving here. Furthermore, he had no idea how he might set about finding out, about leaving, about where to go, about whom to speak to or what procedure to follow…He has a bad feeling and felt deeply uneasy, thinking he must have missed something or failed to do something, something he should have done but couldn’t think what. He tried the phone again in his anxiety, fretfully dialing numbers anywhere, but it was late at night now, the phones kept ringing and only rarely did a sleepy voice respond and then in that peculiar, foreign-sounding, incomprehensible and indistinguishable language that sounded like stuttering.
And so it goes with Budai, a horrific stream of missed opportunities that lead to deeper isolation. And as readers, we are just as trapped as he is. The long, unsettling paragraphs of description we cannot turn away from because Karinthy leads us to believe that there might be hope just on the other side of the page. But there never is. We want so much to help Budai, help him find a way out, all the while being disconcerted that we know we would not fare any better in the same situation. We know that if he does not escape this city he will run out of money, which he does. We know that he will lose his hotel room because of this, which he does. We know that he will not get his passport back annihilation any chance of escape, which he doesn’t. We feel just as isolated and suffocated as Budai caught in an existential urban nightmare where we merely exist, but don’t matter.
Written in 1970 and considered a modern classic in Europe, it is difficult to avoid comparing Karinthy to Kafka. It is, in fact, inevitable. Budai suffers humiliation, isolation, homelessness, loss of motivation, intellectual atrophy, brief imprisonment, loneliness that leads to lapses in his own morality, yet we never get to the apex of horror. Instead we drudge along on his degrading journey of imminent failures waiting for a moment of absolute despair or absolute hope. Because we never get either and so we encounter, ourselves, a sense of failure.
One element that seemed strangely absent from Metropole, is that Budai barely mentions his wife, his job, his friends. There is an obligatory nod to his past, but no time spent on what he misses about his former life, only the fact that he needs to escape where he is. Without this nostalgia or sentimentality, there is an even stronger sense of the dark night of the soul, an existential crisis that registers only with annoyance at where he is, but never to connect the reader with any real emotion of loss.
As a reader, we are drawn into Karinthy’s nightmare and Budai’s continual bad luck. For pure existential travails and societal anomie, this is a classic to be read. But I can’t help thinking, “What if Kafka had written it?”