Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Metropole, Ferenc Karinthy (1921-1992)

Ferenc Karinthy

Twenty years ago I had a Metropole experience in Tokyo.  I was taken to an after hours karaoke bar in (I'm not kidding) a parking garage in downtown Tokyo.  I spoke no Japanese and my hosts spoke no English. We sang Beatles songs and drank beer and sake all night--I had to catch a plane early in the morning for Dulles, and, with a remarkable lack of foresight, I had them drop me off at Narita without a dime in my pocket.  It turns out that there is a departure tax for tourists leaving Japan.  I was hung-over and, with no money, had to try, without even rudimentary Japanese, to bluff my way onto the plane. In the end, I had to give up a perfectly good watch to get past security. It was a harrowing experience, one that I still dream about : running for a plane, babbling in a language I didn't understand, looking into the faces of strangers who were, I suppose, either indifferent to, or shocked by my odd behavior.

This sort of misunderstanding, of incomprehension, multiplied by a hundred, is Metropole, the only book I have ever read that has given me nightmares. The plot is simple, but the depth of the unease invoked by Karinthy is boundless.  A linguist named Budi boards the wrong plane on his way to a conference in Helsinki.  Instead of arriving in Finland, he deplanes in dystopian city (I couldn't help but think of Pyongyang though I have never been there).  Budi, who is competent in several languages, nonetheless is unable to communicate with anyone.  It appears, in fact, that every single person in the metropole speaks a different language. Imagine the language game of the Philosophical Investigations without any rules, or waking up in a world as foreign as the upper reaches of Afghanistan.  This is the situation of Budai: he is a stranger in an unknowable land.  He checks into a hotel and wanders about the city--it is ugly, industrial, and without any discernible features; indeed it appears to shift its geography and landmarks overnight--and as he wanders aimlessly Budai tries to recreate, as an anthropologist might, a rudimentary grammar of the language he hears spoken by the residents of this horrifying city. 

"What? What do you want?" Budai bellowed in his own tongue, breaking the words up into syllables so the other man should better understand him. "Tell me what it is you want!?"

The bearded man looked at him a while with empty, clouded eyes, lit the cigarette, drew deeply on it, blew out the smoke and carried on talking exactly as he did before.  Budai tried hand gestures and facial expressions to convey the fact that he was a stranger here and did not know the language but there was no way of cutting across him.  The man just carried on jabbering, apparently indifferent as to whether he was understood or not."

Think of it: all alone in strange and ghastly city, unable to speak to a single person--unable to make oneself understood--with a finite amount of money, no idea of how to escape, no idea of how to negotiate everyday life: in other words, a nightmare, one from which Budai cannot awaken.  Eventually he is forced to leave his hotel and wander the streets, alone in a city under siege, apparently forever.  Karinthy's novel is full of interesting ideas about the role of language in shaping our identity, but also about how one becomes an unperson in a totalitarian society, and how fragile one's self really is, how dependent on circumstances over which one has no control. 

"Looking back on it later it could only have happened because Budai had gone through the wrong door in the confusion at the transit lounge and, having mistaken an exit sign, found himself on a plane bound elsewhere without the airport staff having noticed the change." 

One wrong turn, and Budai finds himself in a kind of hell, of Babel, of revolution, and violence.  As a scientist, Budai tries to reason his way out of Metropole and back home, but the rules of reason are not enforced everywhere, as we know.  When I have my Metropole dream, the landscape is a blasted desert, full of broken buildings and scattered corpses.  And instead of language, what I hear in my dream is an inhuman silence.

Metropole was translated by George Szirtes and published by Telegram Books in London.

George Ovitt (1/9/13)

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