For the next several weeks we’ll be highlighting a book-a-day from the 25-title Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, leading up to the announcement of the 10 finalists. Click here for all previous write-ups.
Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy, translated from the Hungarian by George Szirtes. (Hungary, Telegram)
This novel is the international traveler’s worst nightmare. It’s the story of Budai, a linguist on his way to a conference in Helsinki, but who gets off the plane to find himself in a country he doesn’t recognize, where he doesn’t understand the language and where no one can understand him.
Budai’s struggles to find his way home—or at least out of this incomprehensible country—are claustrophobic and unnerving. The concept of being helplessly stuck in a situation where you can’t even figure out how to read the simplest of signs, and where no one can help you seems to me to be the worst situation an intelligent adult could ever be stuck in. And for this situation to persist—and remain compelling to the reader—for over 200-pages, with Budai making small intellectual advances that are followed by new situations of complete bafflement is quite an accomplish. A sort of insane, Kafka-esque accomplishment that may well drive some readers crazy, but an accomplishment nonetheless.
G. O. Chateaureynaud claimed that “with time, Metropole will find its due place in the twentieth-century library, on the same shelf as The Trial and 1984.“ The Kafka connection is obvious and mentioned in every review of this book, including Monica Carter’s review of Metropole will go live later today, and which does a fantastic job of capturing the reader’s somewhat horrifying experience of being trapped with Budai:
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.
This is the first of Ferenc Karinthy’s (or, more properly, Karinthy Ferenc’s) books to be translated into English. Some brief info about a few of his other works is available on the Hungarian Literature website. (Though to be honest, none of the other works sound nearly as ambitious or unique as Metropole.)
Ferenc—who was, in addition to being a writer, a water polo champion—was the son of famous Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy. Frigyes is very well-known and respected in Hungary, and was the first proponent of the “six degrees of separation” concept. Which I believe is why he’s mentioned in the “book club extra” on the Lost Season 3 DVD . . . (As a sidenote, Frigyes’s Journey Around My Skull was recently reprinted by New York Review Books.)
On another side note, searching for additional information about Ferenc lead me to translator George Szirtes’s blog, which I didn’t know existed. Based solely on the quality of Szirtes’s translations—not the mention the quality of the authors he translates—this is definitely worth checking out.
The opening of Jón Gnarr’s novel/memoir The Indian is a playful bit of extravagant ego, telling the traditional story of creation, where the “Let there be light!” moment is also the moment of his birth on January 2nd, 1967. Then. . .
Mahasweta Devi is not only one of the most prolific Bengali authors, but she’s also an important activist. In fact, for Devi, the two seem to go together. As you can probably tell from the titles, she writes about women. . .
The prolific Spanish author Benito Pérez Galdós wrote his short novel, Tristana, during the closing years of the nineteenth century, a time when very few options were available to women of limited financial means who did not want a husband.. . .
Pedro Zarraluki’s The History of Silence (trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García) begins with the narrator and his wife, Irene, setting out to write a book about silence, itself called The History of Silence: “This is the story of how. . .
There are plenty of reasons you can fail to find the rhythm of a book. Sometimes it’s a matter of discarding initial assumptions or impressions, sometimes of resetting oneself. Zigmunds Skujiņš’s Flesh-Coloured Dominoes was a defining experience in the necessity. . .
In a culture that privileges prose, reviewing poetry is fairly pointless. And I’ve long since stopped caring about what the world reads and dropped the crusade to get Americans to read more poems. Part of the fault, as I’ve suggested. . .
I would like to pose the argument that it is rare for one to ever come across a truly passive protagonist in a novel. The protagonist (perhaps) of Three Light-Years, Claudio Viberti, is just that—a shy internist who lives in. . .
The last five days of the eleventh-century Icelandic politician, writer of sagas, and famous murder victim Snorri Sturleleson (the Norwegian spelling, Snorre, is preserved in the book) make up Thorvald Steen’s most recently translated historical fiction, The Little Horse. Murdered. . .
We all know Paris, or at least we think we know it. The Eiffel Tower. The Latin Quarter. The Champs-Élysées. The touristy stuff. In Dominique Fabre’s novel, Guys Like Me, we’re shown a different side of Paris: a gray, decaying. . .
One hundred pages into Birth of a Bridge, the prize-winning novel from French writer Maylis de Kerangal, the narrator describes how starting in November, birds come to nest in the wetlands of the fictional city of Coca, California, for three. . .