Budai, a linguist on his way to a conference in Helsinki, arrives by accident in a strange city whose residents speak a language that is both unfamiliar and incomprehensible. Unable even to find his way back to the airport, he tries to make sense of the city and its language before he runs out of money and is evicted from his hotel.
Budai's best hope is Epepe, the hotel lift operator who is the only person patient enough to attempt to communicate with him. The language remains impenetrable despite her efforts but the pair form a relationship of sorts.
Written in Hungary in 1970 but published in English only last year, Karinthy's novel is frequently described as Kafka-esque. For me, the resemblance is superficial, though I'm hardly a Kafka expert. In the little Kafka I've read, there's a sense of persecution, as if the world itself is somehow working against the protagonist. That's absent here. Karinthy's city, an over-crowded, faceless metropolis, is simply indifferent to Budai.
This creates a different dynamic. In Kafka, one feels that the more the protagonist struggles, the tighter the ties around him become. In Metropole, one feels that Budai might be able to escape his trap if only he can figure out how. The problem is that he has nothing at all to go on. His various plans, ranging from buying a map to getting himself arrested, come to nothing.
Things take a strange turn towards the end when Budai finds himself caught in some kind of armed insurrection. It's an odd sequence and one that makes me wonder whether the novel is really about language, as it seems to be to a contemporary Western reader. Was Karinthy drawing a parallel between Hungary's communist regime and this city where violence erupts out of an inability to communicate? I don't know enough about Hungary or Karinthy to be able to say.
In these days of the internet, GPS and mobile phones, Metropole is less plausible than it would have seemed in 1970 but it remains an intriguing novel.