Any number of modern, nightmarish novels are given the epithet of ‘Kafkaesque’, but the fiction of most contemporary writers pales in comparison to the disturbing, oppressive, claustrophobic work of Kafka.
Ferenc Karinthy, himself the son of a famous Hungarian satirist/novelist/journalist, is a contemporary of Hungary and, with Metropole, his first novel translated into English, you find a truly worthy successor to Kafka, not only for his most famous work, The Trial, but also (for its equally claustrophobic, trapped sense of nightmare without end) The Metamorphosis as well, familiar to readers as being his most surreal and famous short story about the uncertainty of one’s identity and of being an outsider/alienated from those familiar to you, as well as to yourself.
The plot itself, as with most of Kafka’s stories, is actually simple and straightforward. But it’s in the novel’s machinations, the relentless struggles and hurdles his character has to endure that he is most reminiscent of those Joseph K. faces in The Trial. In place of Joseph K., you have Budai, a hugely talented multi-lingual linguist (he knows dozens of languages and has rudimentary knowledge of many more). His first person narration draws you ever in alongside him, spiralling downwards into an alien, distressing world.
It begins with Budai on a plane journey to a linguists’ conference but, instead of landing in the country and city he expects, he arrives to find himself in completely unfamiliar surroundings; the classic stranger in a strange land. The city is horribly overpopulated and everywhere he goes, on the streets, in a café, in his hotel, there are hordes of people jostling, struggling to get to the beginning of whatever mass group they’re in (one can hardly call them queues as most appear so arbitrary and overwhelming – like kids crowding to get onto a school bus).
To make matters worse, the language of the city/country is so truly alien, he doesn’t recognise anything whatsoever of its etymology at all; there appears to be no discernible grammar or coherence to it; it really just appears to be gobbledegooking piffle twitter (ahem). No one seems to engage with anyone else; in his hotel, there is nothing to face but queues and a sort of anarchic order, if that makes sense. Without communication of any sort, where most sign and body language appears to make no sense to those with whom he makes such efforts, Budai is continually challenged to fend for himself, yet always facing what appears to be infernal defeat, alienation and incomprehension. This is an Orwellian/Dantesque hell by any other name.
It is an astonishing work of fiction, with a translation that appears seamless and reads beautifully. Is there light for Budai at the end of the clichéd tunnel of this inferno? Ah, well; that’d be letting the meowing cliché out of the bag. Trust me, it’s worth the read, right the way through. The only caveat is that there are many copy-editing/proof-reading errors, which as all readers know can jar and upset the suspension of disbelief necessary to stay fully immersed in the fiction reading process itself. I’ve come to expect this from corporate-sized publishers who no longer have their own in-house and dedicated copy-editing and proof-reading teams, as they used to do in the 90s and before. But I feel more chagrin when it’s a respectable indie publisher. Perhaps this is unfair, given the size of resources available to the large publishers, compared with the indies; but surely one of the key points about being an indie is that you are so dedicated to your own list of fiction/non-fiction, that you do everything in your power to be an independent and to publish books worthy of the authors. No?
Still, highly recommended (as in phwor, “this is the dog’s proverbials and the bee’s knees”). I’ve no doubt Kafka himself would have been envious of this wonderful novel or, based on his diaries and letters, would have absolutely admired Karinthy’s achievement and cheered him on as best he could.