Tag: Kafka

At last – The true heir to Kafka’s fiction – Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy

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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.

The Breast by Philip Roth – his most outrageous, fun work, besides Portnoy’s Complaint

The Breast (UK edition / US edition) is one of my favourite Roth fictions and has the sort of funny, mad, energetic exuberance of Portnoy’s Complaint, while being much more absurd and surreal in its premise. There is nothing else quite like it in Roth’s oeuvre. From the opening line ‘It began oddly.’, you it draws you in into a first-person story told by David Kepesh, a literary professor (and the principal character of two later and better known fictions by Roth, Professor of Desire (UK edition / US edition) and The Dying Animal (UK edition / US edition). It is wonderfully comic, yet addresses both serious and fantastical issues, and all the while is utterly intriguing and intelligently done.

David Kepesh, as the title of the novella makes clear, finds himself turning into a human breast, ‘[…] an organism with the general shape of a football, or a dirigible; […] weighing one hundred and fifty-five pounds […] and measuring, still, six feet in length.’ The story deliberately and knowingly plays on two classic stories of the absurd: Kafka’s most famous and brilliant, The Metamorphosis, in which Gregor Samsa struggles, denies, and agonises over coming to terms with his turning into a beetle, and Nikolai Gogol’s The Nose, an equally absurd tale, where the character, Major Kovalyov, finds his nose abandons his face one day, and begins to assume a life of its own, much to the owner’s chagrin.

While Roth could have made this story simply absurd and comical (and it succeeds on those levels alone, especially the relentless, obsessive sexual fantasies and agonies Kepesh experiences, wanting to have intercourse and oral sex using his nipple), what is impressive is the serious, angst-ridden, matter-of-fact way in which Kepesh for most of the time tries without success, and painfully so, to rationalise his situation, believing at one point that he is simply dreaming, another that he is suffering some terrible mental breakdown, and even that, because he believes he taught Gogol and Kafka’s work with such conviction, it resulted in him becoming a breast (a lovely satiric dig at Kepesh’s/certain academics’ belief in their own brilliance and their ability to make an impact on their world through teaching).

Highly recommended for fans of the absurd, fantastical, and joyfully original fiction. The only caveat – frankly, a gripe – is the cost of this novella (as well as other paperback editions); after all – 96 pages for £7.99 RRP, admittedly generously discounted by 30% by Amazon to £5.59. Ok, perhaps it’s not the ‘quantity’, but the ‘quality’ that counts, but I would normally hope that, for this sort price and paltry number of pages, you’d expect a beautiful physically object/high-quality edition, such as those by, for example, Hesperus Press (note: that is a link to their catalogue, as their website is being revamped at the moment) and Europa Editions, with their French wrapper jackets and quality paper. But then those two publishers are indies, so no surprise there as to their quality … please don’t take this moan as a justification not to buy the title – it really is such an original, terrific read, it’s still worth the price.