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on 15 June 2009
This is a stunningly good book about the nightmarish misadventures of Budai, a Hungarian linguist who, for reasons never explained, is diverted from Helsinki to an unnamed city. Here, bafflingly, considering his occupation, he can make neither head nor tail of the language, written or spoken. Deprived of this basic human need and, in the face of a population who are oblivious or even hostile to his plight he finds himself in a range of situations lovingly detailed by the other reviewers on this page who presumably want to save you the bother of reading the book. Karinthy (will someone please translate more of his work!) is clearly fascinated by language and how it gives us a hold on the world. In this city, linguistic structures appear to have fallen apart and the ramifications of this become clear towards the end.
The quotes that adorn the cover of this book are, for once, justified. If you want a reference point, Franz Kafka is an obvious one and Kazuo Ishiguro's 'The Unconsoled' but this book stands alone as a masterpiece.
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I will admit that although I did enjoy this novel it isn't something that will ever probably garner mass appeal. There are a number of holes as it were in the plot that aren't sufficiently explained, and within a few pages of starting this you realise how Kafkaesque this is. Budai is flying in to Helsinki to attend conferences, but somehow he ends up in some mysterious place, where the language is totally unfamiliar to him, despite the number of languages he knows.

The story continues with Budai trying to learn the language, which he never really does, and his observations of the city he has arrived in. A dystopian novel in many respects this can also be seen in some ways as an allegory of Hungary, as near the end there is an uprising that is similar in many respects to that which happened in 1956. In all the time Budai is in this city he seems to be able to find no way of escape, although there is an underground railway there seems to be no aboveground railway, and although he arrives by plane, he seems unable to find the airport.

Captured here is the hustle and bustle of modern city living, especially as we have entered the age of mega-cities, which this seems to be in this book. What I find rather incongruous in this story is the image of a tower and the building growing floor by floor day in day out. Obviously the first thing that springs to mind is the biblical Tower of Babel, but as such it has no real context to the story. As with the uprising that takes place in this, we never actually find out if it was successful or not, as all signs seem to disappear that it happened and life goes on seemingly as before. Even the end of this, although upbeat does make you wonder how Budai suddenly came across what could be his salvation.

With Budai only making one friend in this book it does highlight the isolation and loneliness that people can feel suddenly moving to a big city, and the description of how people live in slums is reminiscent of how we can see cities growing still in some parts of the world.

Although a good read and thoughtful it is the holes in the story that stand out and detract from this thus making it very good, but not great.
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on 7 April 2011
Any number of modern, nightmarish novels are given the epithet of 'Kafkaesque', but most contemporary writers pale in comparison to the truly disturbing, oppressive, claustrophic and dark fiction of Kafka himself.

Well, in the modern Hungarian, Ferenc Karinthy (himself the son of a famous Hungarian satirist/novelist/journalist) and his novel, Metropole, you find a truly worthy successor to Kafka, not only for his most famous work, The Trial (Wordsworth Classics of World Literature), but also - for its equally claustrophic, trapped sense of nightmare without end, his most famous short story - The Metamorphosis (Dover Thrift).

The plot is, as with Kafka's work, straightforward; but it's in the novel's machinations, the relentless trial and tribulations of his character - here, Budai, a multi-lingual linguist - comparable to Joseph K.'s in The Trial, that you find yourself as a reader drawn in and ever downwards; conjoined with Budai's viewpoint on his world of suffering, alienation and incomprehension at arriving in a country and city that is massively, suffocatingly overpopulated and whose language he doesn't recognise whatsoever.

It is an astonishing work of fiction, with a translation that is seamless. The only complaint is that there are numerous errors in the copy-editing, which as all readers know can jar and upset the suspension of disbelief necessary to remain fully immersed in the fiction reading process itself. Highly recommended; I've no doubt Kafka himself would have been envious of this wonderful novel.
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on 24 March 2013
I think I enjoyed this book! Read the first half avidly and got caught up in the tenseness and the character's inability to communicate. The second half of the book I found myself speed reading as I was desperate to get out of the book and away from the city which was causing him so much difficulty. It is not a comfortable read and all the better for it but if I'm honest I just wanted it to end! Maybe that is what the author intended!
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on 23 December 2010
In spite of reading the likes of Kafka and Orwell, I'd never heard of this book and only came upon it by accident. I was glad I did. The story captivated me from the first - the confusion, the press of people, the absurdity of the situation which was nonetheless dark and terrifying. There are flaws of course and I found the ending an enormous disappointment ("He would soon be home.") - almost infantile - as if the author had got bored of his endeavours and wanted to sum up quickly before rushing out for a pint. But I think my disappointment perversely is to the author's credit. If F Karinthy hadn't created such an engrossing and mystifying puzzle I wouldn't have cared so much for the outcome. Would recommend highly.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 14 October 2015
'Metropole' appeared in Hungarian in 1970, but had to wait forty years to be translated into English. By repute, it is Ferenc Karinthy's best novel. The most common comparison is with Kafka, particularly the Kafka of 'The Trial' and 'The Castle'. As with most such comparisons, it is neither particularly helpful nor as much of a compliment to the author as is intended. Fortunately, Karinthy is his own man. Whether he possesses the uncanny power of Kafka is another matter.

The book might be placed as a late example of European existentialist fiction, with surreal flourishes. The central character, Budai, is a peripatetic academic who, by virtue of a series of events that may or may not be purely coincidental, finds himself deplaning in a mysterious country that is not his intended destination, and whose language he cannot understand. This is all the more alarming since Budai is a linguistician by profession. Taken to a hotel in the city nearby, he sets out to correct the mistake that has marooned him. The bulk of the book concerns his ever more desperate attempts to liberate himself, and the corrosive effects of his circumstances on his character and sense of identity.

Karinthy possessed a PhD in linguistics, and 'Metropole' is at some level a linguistician's perverse fantasy: the panic fear of mutual unintelligibility that dates back at least to the myth of the tower of Babel. The language of the strange and unnamed country is impossible to parse and ever-shifting. Budai finds himself in a sort of secular hell in which his best intentions are incommunicable and his professional skills useless. Karinthy observes how much of what we take to be our identity is given to us by others, and tied up in our ability to communicate. Without it, we are at the mercy of brute fact: unrecognised, and perhaps unrecognisable even to ourselves.

'Metropole' does not set out to create a completely logical, plausible dystopia. The non-language of the country is reminiscent of the enigmatic speech of dreams, stalled on the edge of meaning, which renders ideas of intelligible structure moot: and the book is probably best considered as a dream- or vision-narrative. It is certainly not merely an allegory of Communist society at the time of writing, which would be the most obvious interpretation: there is plenty here that is an implicit criticism of rationality itself.

Karinthy is not Kafka, and claims that 'Metropole' is a classic on the level of 'The Castle', or even 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' are exaggerated. Fortunately, the novel is worth reading in its own right, and George Szirtes' characteristically fluent translation makes this a pleasure. It is a pity that the original title – 'Epepe' – could not have been retained: in its very lack of meaning it is a pointer to the spirit of the book. Perhaps the demands of marketing to an English-speaking readership made that impossible.
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on 20 August 2008
Arriving, bleary-eyed and jet-lagged, in a foreign land, being forced this way and that by a crowd of people whose words one cannot understand, is an everyday experience in the world of EasyJet and RyanAir. The fact that it is everyday doesn't detract from its nightmarish qualities, however.

In Metropole, Budai, a linguist on his way to Helsinki for a conference, encounters this modern nightmare in its most extreme form. After leaving his plane and blearily taking the airport bus he finds himself in an almost endless city where every street, every building is thronged by representatives of the entire human multitude, none of whom Budai can understand.

Uncertain of where this new city is, unable even to hear the words of his fellow beings clearly and consistently, Budai finds himself jostling and kicking his way through life in a grim, grey metropolis. He lives - for a while, at least - in a large but characterless hotel, buys his food from the machines in a cafeteria, spends his days riding the nameless city's Metro in search of an escape and his nights either drinking in the cramped and sweaty city bars or locked away in his room, puzzling away at newspapers and telephone directories written in a script he cannot understand.

Unable to communicate with those around him, Budai's only human contact is with the woman who operates the lift in his hotel, a woman whose name he cannot even hear or pronounce consistently - is she Bebe, Ebede, Dede, Pepep, Debebe, Tyetye or Epepe?

Slowly Budai finds himself carried by the human crowd into strange religious ceremonies, into penury, into carnival and even into revolution and defeat - his only thoughts those of escape or of his unnameable new love.

Metropole is a brilliant study of the everyday alienation that so often goes with life in a modern city, a place that can be brusque and harsh and in which one is sometimes forced to question whether any of us truly speak the same language. At the same time it is a prescient (this was written in 1970) study of a world in which we are divided into either individuals or mobs, with no such thing as society to stand between the two states. Nonetheless it ends on a note of hope - something we all must do if we want to press on through our life today.
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on 7 November 2012
To read Metropole is to lose oneself in the story and the nightmare city it describes.

You will be absorbed within it, from the first few pages.

Nightmarish, realistic, claustrophobic, enthralling.

Join the hero, you will feel like you literally have.

Stunning SF.
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on 29 January 2010
An urban Robinson Crusoe rewritten by Kafka. Compulsively readable. Traps you inside the world of the book.
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on 12 May 2011
Borrowing heavily from The Trial, but original enough to warrant its own praise, Metropole is definitely a thought provoking read. The largest gripe I had with the novel is the somewhat repetitive language employed - which may be down to an uncreative translation. Metropole no doubt read better in the native Hungarian.

The books main themes of cyclical elation and desperation, helplessness, and isolation are rather over-wrought, at the expense of the plot possibly. Definitely worth a look at however; it's a pity that there isn't more of Ferenc Karinthy's translated into English.
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