by Ferenc Karinthy
Translated fiction is as much of a poor relation as it ever was in the UK publishing industry, as UK bookshop shelves groan under the weight of anglo-american fare. Indeed, only 3% of the books on offer to UK book buyers are Ďbought iní from non-English speaking countries.
Hats off then to publishers such as Telegram Books who make it their business to open our eyes to a world of literary treasures, such as the late Ferenc Karinthyís dystopian classic, Metropole. It really is a gem and leaves this reviewer wondering what other jewels of world fiction we are missing out on, if only the UK publishing industry wasnít so focussed on home-grown and US talent.
So, Metropole is a keeper, then, but whatís it all about? Itís the story of Budai, an academic, who, bound for Helsinki and a linguistís conference, finds himself stepping off his plane in a foreign city where he has no understanding of the people around him; with neither the written or spoken language he encounters resembling any form of any other language he has ever seen. He ends up in a hotel where, despite the extraordinary queues at the check-in desk, he is given a room which soon becomes his safe haven from the discombobulating world around him. What follows are Budaiís attempts to decode this world, its culture and its language, his efforts to try and lift the dark cloud of incomprehension which has descended over him.
You may find it odd that I am heartily recommending a book which is simply the account of one manís travails as he wanders hither and thither through an unknown city, but his encounters are so extraordinary, his fears so real as he battles undistinguishable tongues and alien words, that he might as well be blindfolded and wearing ear muffs: this is the stuff of nightmares, and as with all dreams of that ilk you will doubtless be left wondering, Ďbut what does it all mean?í
Well, like other dystopian writers, to whom Karinthy has been compared (Kafka and Orwell) the author actually raises more questions that he does answers. But even if you canít find an obvious meaning in all this, Budaiís adventures in attempted-translation are so gripping that you wonít really care.
Nina de la Mer