Monday, December 28, 2009


by Ferenc Karinthy

You know, I look at this blog sometimes and think, What the hell have I been reading? Sure, reading crap that's fun is, well, fun. But then I read something like this, and I remember that the world is full of amazing, high-quality, non-crap literature that also is fun to read. I also need to start reading more Russian and Eastern European stuff, and should read some more books from Europa Editions. I do have some Russian books on my to-read list, and at least one that's on my shelf right now, and I have at least two books published by Europa on my to-blog list. There are lots of new books I want to read, but it's so nice to be occasionally blown away by a "classic"; reading this made me feel the way I felt when I read Confessions of a Mask.

Anyway, Metropole is almost sci-fi, and it's about language, whether it's ever truly possible to communicate and/or to understand another person. The protagonist is trapped in an unfamiliar city, unsure how he came to be there, completely baffled by a language that both sounds and looks like gibberish, even to someone such as himself, a linguist fluent in six or seven languages and conversant with a great many more. Unable to have even a simple verbal exchange or to express himself in pantomime, he cycles through rage, despair, acceptance, determination, fear, loathing, ambition... while trying to escape from this city that seems never to end yet is paradoxically, impossibly crowded with unhelpful and indifferent gabbling swarms of people who, one begins to suspect, may not even be able to understand one another.

Words like Babel, Orwellian and Kafka-esque spring to mind too easily to convey the subtlety with which the author — a Hungarian linguist born in 1921 (the book was first published in 1970, I believe) — explores the essential role of language, both in the life of the individual and in the greater cultural milieu, and the aching human need to speak, to listen, to be heard. And the story also manages to be exciting and suspenseful, a mystery and a puzzle that will draw you in and keep you reading.

No comments: