Metropole, Paperback
4 out of 5 (8 ratings)


A linguist flying to a conference in Helsinki has landed in a strange city where he can't understand a word anyone says.

As one claustrophobic day follows another, he wonders why no one has found him yet, whether his wife has given him up for dead, and how he'll get by in this society that looks so familiar, yet is so strange.

In a vision of hell, unlike any previously imagined, Budai must learn to survive in a world where words and meaning are unconnected.

This is a suspenseful and haunting Hungarian classic.




Free Home Delivery

on all orders

Pick up orders

from local bookshops


Showing 1 - 5 of 8 reviews.

  Previous  |  Next

Review by

Ferenc Karinthy (1921-1992), a trained linguist, was the son of famed Hungarian writer playwright Frigyes Karinthy. Not surprisingly, then, the complexity and confusion of language is the central theme of Karinthy's 1970 novel "Metropole" (originally entitled "Epépé"), the Kafkaesque tale of a hapless narrator stranded on the top floor of the figurative Tower of Babel.The plot builds upon a basic but very ironic premise: Budai, a linguist, seems to have boarded the wrong plane on his way to a conference in Helsinki and has now ended up in a mysterious city in an unknown country with a singularly incomprehensible language. It is packed to overflowing: human congestion spills from the lobbies out into the streets and Budai is rudely rushed down sidewalks and through lines. Even the solitude of the hotel room he manages to acquire is afflicted by the alien alphabet he encounters in a framed printout presumably of hotel regulations. The overwhelming effect is one of claustrophobia reinforced by a rambling syntax that pushes headlong from page to page in lengthy paragraphs. A harried Budai roams from place to place in time with the narrative rhythm, attempting unsuccessfully to find . . . a way . . . out . . . OF . . . HERE! The very density of the urban dreamscape - its unyielding masses of humanity and mazes of streets, alleys, passageways, myriads of neighborhoods - seems to compress into a solid wall, entrapping Budai as effectively as any stone-and-mortar fortification. The mounting tension is palpable, even as it superficially plateaus when Budai settles into his hotel room, finds some work, and even acquires a sort of girlfriend. Obviously such fragile comfort cannot possibly last: it must prelude some catastrophe, which, when it comes, seems naturally inevitable as the expected fate of a stranger in a wholly strange land.Yet strangely enough, however, Budai's demeanor throughout his ordeal is not one of panic or outright desperation; on the contrast, he is more perturbed than anything else. He is similar in that respect to many of Kafka's protagonists, particularly Gregor Samsa the giant bug, as an individual whose reaction to a grotesque or extraordinary situation is one of bemusement or annoyance rather than shock or terror. This lends a greater element of realism to "Metropole" that might have been otherwise submerged in emotional bombast. "Metropole" is frightening because it comes across as a probable scenario - not because it is a horror novel in the Stephen King or Dean Koontz sense of the term. In fact, it reminded me, oddly enough, of "Johnny Got His Gun," as a tale of a man locked in a nightmarish scenario and desperate make himself understood. What "Metropole" also does quite effectively is to unearth the subliminal fears of anonymity and invisibility in contemporary society. Indeed, it is a story of individuality and subjectivity taken to their greatest extreme: if each citizen of "Metropole" is actually uttering a verbal articulation of their own private language, as Budai comes to suspect, then maybe the driving force behind modern isolation is precisely this teeming urban obscurity, in addition to Western culture's emphasis on personal independence, personal ambition, personal expression, personal gratification, ad infinitum. If Budai is jarringly cool about his predicament, then perhaps that is because his situation is merely a farcical extension of the realities of modern life.Despite its relatively unknown status in the United States, "Metropole" is actually considered a modern classic. Its unspecified setting and multilingual protagonist contribute to a greater international, cross-cultural appeal, especially as the nameless city is described as both a wanly generic and strikingly diverse place that any reader anywhere can envision for themselves. The bizarre nature of the story is itself an attraction, since one cannot help but wonder where all this could possibly lead to. "Metropole," therefore, comes highly recommended.

Review by

Metropole, which was published in 1970, is considered a classic of Hungarian literature, but it was not published in the US until 2008.Budai is a Hungarian linguist who intends to travel to Helsinki for a conference. He unknowingly gets on a wrong plane, falls asleep for the entire flight, and finds himself in a most unfamiliar city. Despite his fluency in multiple language and his professional background, he cannot communicate with anyone and cannot decipher the strange characters that constitute the written language of the city. He is constantly surrounded by teeming masses of people who shove and kick each other to get anywhere, and he is carried with the crowd to a bus which takes him to a hotel in the city.He manages to obtain a room in the hotel, but his passport is taken from him by a desk clerk who he never sees again. He spends his days in futile and often humorous attempts to accomplish the most basic tasks, such as ordering lunch. He befriends an attractive young elevator operator, but he never learns her name, and he gives her a new name every time he sees her.His money eventually runs out, and his life spirals out of control, as he becomes more desperate and unstable. The story takes a surprising turn toward the end, as the neighborhood he is in descends into chaos and violence.

Review by

A funny thing happens to Budai on the way to Helsinki: stepping off the plane he inexplicably finds himself trapped in a steroidal metropolis where no one understands any of the dozen or so languages he happens to speak. It doesn't take him long to figure out that he's not in Helsinki. But if it's not Helsinki, then where is he? And why can he find no one who speaks a language he's familiar with?As much an intellectual speculation on how language can both include and marginalize as it is a commentary on urban life, _Metropole_ works because Karinthy so convincingly conveys the frustration Budai (and ultimately, the reader) feels when confronted with the fact that he can't even do something as simple as order a meal in a restaurant or ask for directions to the train station without eliciting irritation and contempt from the city's grumpy, harried and monolingual everyman denizens.The novel is loaded with menace, but its an intellectual menace, one that attacks some hidden root in our psyche that is rarely singled out in modern literature: our confidence in our own ability to help ourselves. Every effort Budai makes to sort out where he's at, how he got there, how he can survive day to day, and how he can get home is thwarted time and time again simply because he does not possess the one tool we take most for granted, our ability to communicate ourselves to other people. His only succor is an unlikely relationship he develops with the elevator operator in his hotel, and even this is fraught with misunderstanding and miscommunications. The real star of this story, though, is not Budai, but the city itself. A teeming Every-City home to twice as many people as it should be, the streets are packed beyond capacity, every store and service weighed down by long lines, every sidewalk loaded with ill-mannered pedestrians jostling elbow to elbow, every street a stream of bumper-to-bumper traffic. Half the fun of the book is Budai's curious observations of a culture not unlike that of Western Europe or the United States if it were reflected back to us in a warped carnival mirror. Growth seems to be the city's only purpose, and as Budai cranes his neck off the top of one of the city's tallest buildings he can see no end to it in any direction he looks. Further, a skyscraper that's under construction near his hotel seems to add a new floor everyday, climbing ever upward.There are lots of wonderful moments in this novel, moments of pure exhaustion where we sit with Budai in some far lost corner of this placeless place and reel to think that the madness of urban life is being reflected back at us as a logical conclusion that may or may not be foregone. All of it leads to a spectacular ending that, perhaps not surprisingly, calls up the ghost of Hungary's aborted 1956 revolution, a bloody mess the pulls the curtain back so that, if only for a moment, we glimpse the hard iron framework supporting the backdrop of a city that never sleeps.

Review by

Budai gets on the wrong plane and finds himself in the wrong place. A linguist by trade he feels confident on a quick resolution but is frustrated at every turn and thrust into an increasingly overwhelming and incomprehesbile city. Once I relaxed and stopped thinking what Budai should be doing to escape and accepted that at heart this was a tale of language and modern living, I started to enjoy it. The star is the city, a never-ending place, overflowing with rushing citizens bent on their own personal lives and performing rituals twisted by our lack of understanding. Budai's relaxed attitude allows the city to unfold, conjuring up some wonderful moments: the frustration at trying buy food, the incomprehensibility of a religous ritual or metephorical sports game. Budai's constant attempts never become repetitive, Karinthy manages to keep the tale fresh throughout (in fact I preferred the latter half of the book). It's not a book for lovers of resolution or hard action but it is an interesting meditation on urban life.

Review by

Budai falls asleep during a plane journey on his way to a conference, and groggily makes his way into the city on arrival. But it turns out that the city is not Helsinki, nor indeed anywhere recognisable. Even though Budai speaks bits of dozens of languages, no-one he finds can understand any of them, and there is nothing familiar in the language that he hears around him. Everywhere is crowded, people are too busy to let him try and communicate with them, and the flows of people are such that he can't always get to where he is trying to go. Even his hotel room is hard to find: "He met no one in the corridor as he searched for his room, wandering to and fro, counting forward and back in the attempt to locate room 921. There was always a doorway or a junction that broke the sequence and he could not pick it up again".What would you do in this situation? Try and find an information counter, or a travel agent, or an embassy - someone with whom you might find a means of communicating. "But how was he to locate any of these agencies? Who was there to ask in the dreadful whirl of traffic where no one had the time to address his problems but left him muttering idiotically to himself? They must speak other languages in banks and financial institutions and, possibly, in various public offices, but where to find such places, how to identify them among the mass of buildings, when he couldn't make the slightest sense of the notices on them?"This is a brilliant portrayal of a nightmarish situation. The long, run-on sentences drop us right inside Budai's head as he wonders desperately what he can do (but are broken up enough with short, clear sentences so that they don't become overwhelming), and so we can understand his twisted logic as he looks for ever more hopeless ways out - dialling various combinations of telephone numbers which "might be public lines", leaving notes in different languages scattered around the hotel, even trying to work out the local language from a close reading of the phone book or a newspaper. All the time he is striving to hang on to the fact that he does not belong in this city. Because the only way to survive in such an uncaring and hostile society is not to get used to it, not to lose hope, to hang on to your own mental acuity and your individual desires, and to continue to resist, however futile it may seem.That said, one of the most chilling moments in the book is when Budai finds a tiny scrap of hope - a split-second encounter with another Hungarian - which is then torn away from him. And for a long time Budai does lose his hope, giving up trying to talk to anyone, turning to drink and formless rage. But yet another incomprehensible occurrence in this city of incomprehensibilities reminds him that people need to stay greedy for life.The book is pitched precisely at the point where the absurdity of the situation is both funny and terrible. For example, there is a running joke about the fact that even with the one person who is prepared to try and communicate with Budai, he is unable to figure out her name, because the sound seems to change each time she says it - so each time he thinks about her she has a slightly different name. This is funny, but at the same time such a stark indicator of his isolation.I really enjoyed this book (except for a slight dip in interest in the middle, as Budai's situation didn't seem to be evolving). As I was reaching the end my mind was full of possibilities for how the author would be able to bring the narrative to a satisfactory conclusion, none of which seemed entirely satisfying. And indeed, the ending was none of them. I thought it was perfect.

  Previous  |  Next

Also by Ferenc Karinthy