11. 18. 2008. 10:02

A parable and its limits

Ferenc Karinthy: Metropole

A linguist gets on the wrong plane and ends up in a foreign place where he finds himself surrounded by an utterly foreign world with obscure laws, a geographic location that must be kept a secret, and inhabitants whose indifference to all of this is utterly appalling. – A 1970 masterpiece by Ferenc Karinthy, translated into English for the first time.

"Your child and my child are beating our child," is a comment reportedly made at one time by Aranka Böhm to her husband, Frigyes Karinthy. Little else could describe so succinctly the nature of their chaotic marriage, while also summarizing the kind of environment the child in question—Ferenc Karinthy—was exposed to from a young age. His father, Frigyes Karinthy (1887–1938) was one of the wittiest and most significant authors to participate in the impressive Nyugat (West) period of Hungarian literature. Works bearing his name can be found in virtually every literary genre, such as novels (including two new adventures featuring Jonathan Swift’s character, Gulliver), dramas and poetry, as well as his brilliant literary parodies. His translations of Gulliver’s Travels and A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh are deemed classics; the latter is considered an essential part of Hungarian children’s literature even today. Ferenc Karinthy’s mother, Aranka Böhm, completed her training as a psychoanalyst in Vienna and possessed a sparkling wit and formidable intelligence. Hailed as a celebrated beauty by all of Budapest, the generous way in which Aranka Böhm spread her charms amongst her admirers did much to fuel her husband’s constant—and not unwarranted—jealousy. Their marriage was based on the kind of relationship best described as “I hate-you-but-I-can’t-live-without-you,” and was subsequently the source of frequent and loud scandals, beatings and a variety of suicide attempts. As Ferenc Karinthy once told his friends at his favorite café, “You’ll see—when I die and make my ascent to heaven, Jesus himself will sit me down beside him on His heavenly throne. Then he’ll tell the celestial chorus and all His hosts of angels: ‘Behold this mortal man, who hath suffered far more than ever did I, for he was the husband of Aranka Böhm.’”
 
Born in 1921, Ferenc Karinthy’s childhood was spent in intellectually stimulating and entirely unconventional surroundings populated by writers, journalists, horse jockeys, actors and actresses, gamblers and confidence men. In an environment where the clinically insane rubbed elbows with geniuses, a sense of consistency or any other “bourgeois” standard was rare indeed. After losing his parents at a fairly early age—his father died in 1938 following an unsuccessful brain operation while his mother later died at Auschwitz—Ferenc Karinthy attended studies in the liberal arts in preparation to become a linguist. In the latter part of the Second World War he was temporarily forced to go into hiding for deserting the military.
 
While he did complete a doctorate in linguistics, Ferenc Karinthy’s early talent as a writer was already apparent in 1943 with the publication of his first novel, Don Juan éjszakája (A Night in the Life of Don Juan). From 1947 to 1948 Karinthy spent a year of study in Paris; upon returning to Hungary he immediately found himself in the midst of a murderous Stalinist regime led by Mátyás Rákosi. Before the beginning of the communist dictatorship, however, Ferenc Karinthy was able to publish two other books. His first work, Szellemidézés (Raising Ghosts, 1946), was a portrayal of the author’s recollections concerning his father and family, while his second work, Kentaur (Centaur, 1947) was an interesting novel with a linguist as its main character, a similarity shared by his later work, Epepe (now published in English as Metropole). At the time prestigious authors like Sándor Márai openly endorsed Ferenc Karinthy’s debut as a young writer.
 
All personal illusions naturally had to be laid aside in 1949; while the gay life of a boheme was no longer possible in the Stalinist rule of the time, Karinthy still refused to lose his head. Or, to put it more precisely, that is exactly what he did, for Ferenc Karinthy almost immediately put his pen—a tool he often used with far too much speed and nonchalance—into the dictatorship’s service. He did so with great success, a fact underscored by his recipience of the Kossuth Prize, Hungary’s highest honor, in 1955. Then this, too, came to an end; for a short time following the 1956 Revolution, Karinthy did not publish anything, choosing instead to work editing scripts in theatres located outside of Budapest. Things, however, quickly took a turn for the better under the regime headed by János Kádár: Ferenc Karinthy was one of this period’s most popular authors, a “petted favorite” liked by both the audience and the political powers of the time. While Karinthy never actually supported the communist regime in any direct form, he did not separate himself from it either, instead attempting to walk a thin line between those explicitly supporting the regime, and those who openly opposed it. 
 
As a result, Ferenc Karinthy found himself increasingly relegated to the “sidelines” as the literary world gradually grew to view him as a clown unworthy of any serious consideration, in spite of his success with his audience. The fall of the Iron Curtain did not change matters any; by 1989 his name was barely mentioned in literary circles. Socialism’s dissolution had come too late, leaving Karinthy bitterly disappointed. By the time of his last television interview, Ferenc Karinthy had been reduced to a seriously ill, obviously extremely alcoholic wreck of a man. Ferenc Karinthy’s fate as an author is symptomatic of many artistic careers led during the time of socialism in Hungary: a childhood spent in a middle-class, talented family followed by the total rejection of almost everything that childhood meant in a sudden reversal representing a kind of symbolic patricide. The author’s middle-age years mark a slight return to his original roots, only to be quickly followed by total collapse on both a personal and a professional level. Finally, the latter years are characterized by apathy, intellectual isolation and an overwhelming sense of despair.
 
The posthumous publication of Ferenc Karinthy’s diary reveals that the author saw his own acts of self-betrayal with a clarity that was sometimes ruthless, and other times dangerously cynical. According to this diary, Karinthy always held his novel Metropole, published in 1970, to be his most important work:
“…it’s shaping up to be a sort of major work,” he writes on August 10, 1967.  This view is also supported by the fact that—as opposed to his usual habit—the author spent years working on Metropole’s manuscript, an effort that did in fact succeed in expressing (albeit in a very cloaked form) Ferenc Karinthy’s genuine opinion of a socialist society. It is important to mention that Metropole first appeared in the form of a serial published throughout the year of 1969 in a daily paper with opposition leanings called Magyar Nemzet. Due to the novel’s obviously political message, Karinthy long doubted that Metropole would ever be allowed to appear as a book, especially in uncensored form.
 
According to Metropole’s plot, a linguist named Budai is travelling to Helsinki to attend a conference when he gets on the wrong plane and eventually ends up in a foreign place he later christens "Epepe" (this is the original title of the novel). The fact that Budai also refers to his fleeting love, the blond elevator operator, by this name emphasizes his basic bewilderment in dealing with his predicament. The most unbearable circumstance that follows Budai throughout his time in this country is his inability to communicate with the natives; no matter what language he tries, be it English, Italian, French, Russian, modern or ancient Greek, nobody understands a word he says. His struggle to communicate is made even more desperate by his attempt to decipher the country’s alphabet, which he fails to accomplish. In short, the learned linguist, Budai, finds himself surrounded by an utterly foreign world with obscure laws, a geographic location that must be kept a secret, and inhabitants whose indifference to all of this is utterly appalling. Finally, Budai’s desperate attempt to break the law ends in failure: in this country, even the police cannot be provoked into taking action.
 
At first glance Metropole appears to be a parable—a slightly negative utopia, or more precisely, a robinsonade. The use of parables as a literary form is typical of Hungarian literature from this period; robbed of the ability to express their thoughts openly, artists frequently resorted to techniques rooted in symbols and metaphors. The film director, Miklós Jancsó, created films based on parables, while the most significant authors of the time, István Örkény and Miklós Mészöly, also wrote parables. Tibor Déry’s novel, Mr. A.G. in X (1964)—not to mention the influence of Franz Kafka—can justly be considered a literary and stylistic antecedent to Metropole, even though Ferenc Karinthy possessed a healthy hatred of this author due to the unreserved way in which Déry published the details of his torrid affair with Aranka Böhm in his memoir, No Judgement Passed (1969). 
 
An additional influence can possiby be found in George Orwell’s famous work, 1984. In a diary entry dating from 1967, Ferenc Karinthy states the following opinion about this novel, still unpublished in Hungarian: “What makes this novel good is that it uses art in order to portray an extreme that our politicians have never yet dared to reach or envision. The last part, the linguistic appendix detailing the new language, is an absolutely awe-inspiring accomplishment.”  Within this context Metropole could be interpreted as an anti-utopistic portrayal of socialism’s very real circumstances shown through the depiction of an imaginary country. A strict analysis of the text, however, reveals that this statement is only partially true, for Karinthy neglects to accomplish the kinds of artistic feats that he admired so thoroughly in Orwell’s work. Very few examples, for instance, are provided concerning the conditions surrounding life in this ghostly foreign country as Karinthy only describes the culture, customs, the inhabitants in abstracto, even though his readers would prefer more concrete details.
 
Ferenc Karinthy therefore falls into a trap that is generally sprung in the course of parabolistic depictions: too many details would reveal too much, rendering the parable ineffective. Excessive vagueness, however, jeopardizes the reader’s ability to accept the novel’s ability to reflect reality. Metropole can be placed somewhere in between these two extremes, for very little is shown about this imaginary world other than the fact that herds of people are constantly surging down the streets, the unending crowds are almost unbearable, the inhabitants are impolite and fairly crude, and it’s necessary to stand in line for hours even though the stores are filled with merchandise. The outbreak of a rebellion at the novel’s end is therefore quite unexpected as the inhabitants’ behavior reveals no sense of dissatisfaction. No opinion is voiced stating that they are the victims of a dictatorship, and the author makes no attempt to characterize the imaginary country’s political or societal situation. It therefore comes as no surprise that Ferenc Karinthy’s narrator remains undecided concerning the rebellion’s genuine goals or reasons:
 
"What had happened? Was it a siege? A war? A revolution? And who were the combatants? Who fought whom and why?" (p. 219)
 
While the question of the rebellion is posed, the author still shrinks back from forming any definite answer. This is quite understandable given the fact that his readers would have immediately associated the rebellion with the 1956 Revolution, a thoroughly taboo subject at the time. It is of course undeniable that Karinthy takes his descriptions as far as possible—as long as the publication of his novel is not definitely endangered, that is. The image of marching rebels dragging an “enormous cylindrical object painted grey that must have been almost forty metres long” (p. 204) suggests, for example, the statue of Stalin knocked down by revolutionaries in 1956. Many other small details and subtle references would have also been easily recognized by Hungarian readers in the 1970’s. It must be emphasized that—despite its inclusion of these details—Metropole still falls short of matching the kind of historical parable Orwell was so adept at pushing to its very limits.
 
Naturally, Metropole could also be viewed as an example of fictionalized autobiography. The main character, Budai, is a linguist, just as the author was at the start of his career. Karinthy’s depiction of Budai can be seen as a self-portrayal of his own bewildered and painful attempts to adjust to the socialist world he inadvertently and unwillingly found himself surrounded by following his return from Paris. One of the novel’s recurring motifs supports this interpretation: in one part Budai, still hoping to unlock the secret of this country’s language, goes to a bookstore to purchase a dictionary. Unable to find anything remotely resembling a dictionary, he buys instead a volume of short stories purportedly written by a modern writer. The author’s picture appears in the book:
 
“a man of about forty or so in a polo-neck jumper, his face round, his hair cut short, his body relaxed, apparently unposed. He was standing in front of a slatted fence, his eyes narrowing, his expression tired or slightly bored, with a slightly mocking smile playing about his lips as if he were in the act of suppressing a yawn." (p. 121)
 
The narrator then adds that the face seems familiar to Budai, even though he cannot recall where he last saw it. The puzzle is solved forty-four pages later, when Budai once more looks at the book, although fully aware by then that he will never be able to read it:
 
“Then he gazed at the photograph of the author on the flap (...) and he still looked familiar. He wondered where he might have seen him, who he reminded him of, why he was drawn to him. (...) One evening he returned tired from his work at the market and caught sight of himself in the bathroom mirror just as he was suppressing a yawn and it suddenly became obvious: the man in the photographs reminded him of himself.” (p. 165)
 
A glance at Ferenc Karinthy’s photograph soon reveals that the picture described by Budai is a direct allusion to the novel’s author. For those still unconvinced that Budai and Karinthy, Metropole’s main character and narrator, are often one and the same, an examination of one of Ferenc Karinthy’s short story collections will banish any remaining doubts. Published in 1962, Kék-zöld Florida (Blue-Green Florida) displays exactly the same picture described through Budai’s eyes as seen on the cover of the unknown author’s volume of short stories: palm trees, a beach next to the ocean and a row of white summer homes stretching into the background.
 
Yet another detail suggests a personal reference to the author’s life: in the course of his wanderings through the foreign country, Budai runs into a man on the subway carrying a copy of Színházi Élet, a Hungarian newspaper fashionable in the 1930’s. (p. 161) Budai shouts to the man in Hungarian, who then replies back in the same language. Any further contact is impossible due to the crowd’s endless pushing and shoving. In the end the two are swept away from one another. It is a well-known fact in Hungary that the author’s father, Frigyes Karinthy, was one of Színházi Élet's most highly employed writers: could it be that the author ran into his father—or the ghost of his father—while stumbling through a dark tunnel running the length of a wretched city? The novel, in any event, provides no definite answer to this question; the same way the interpretation of Metropole as an example of fictionalized autobiography remains an open question to the reader.
 
This novel may also be approached as a literary exercise in epistemology, just as it can be seen as an experiment in the philosophy of language—only one that the author chooses to outline instead of developing it fully. While it cannot be denied that Ferenc Karinthy makes full use of his broad knowledge of linguistics, his command of philosophy is far less imposing. Upon hearing the vastly different dialects used by the natives, Budai poses the interesting idea that perhaps
 
“the people who lived here employed various provincial dialects, possibly even quite different languages[.] In a particularly feverish moment it even occurred to him that each one of them might be speaking his own language, that there were as many languages as there were people." (p. 152)
 
In the end any results possibly stemming from this observation—such as a reinterpretation of the famous dilemma posed by Wittgenstein concerning the issue that the boundaries of perception are determined by the boundaries of language—prove far too complicated to fit into the framework of this novel, not to mention the literary abilities of its author. An experiment conducted without sufficient attention to detail, Metropole remains a curious relic from the world of parables created during Hungary’s socialist period, as well as providing an interesting insight into Ferenc Karinthy’s work as an author.            
Ferenc Karinthy: Metropole
Translated by George Szirtes
London: Telegram, 2008
 
The book was published with the support of the Hungarian Book Foundation.

Zoltán András Bán

Translated by: Maya LoBello

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