Budai steps through the wrong door at the airport, so that his flight takes him not to Helsinki, where he’s expected at a conference, but to a vast and unknown city filled with hoards of people all speaking different languages. Though Budai is a linguist and speaks many of the world’s languages, he recognizes none of these and can’t get anyone to understand him, no matter which language he asks his questions in. The only person who tries to help him out is one of the elevator operators at his hotel, but even she can’t do anything when Budai runs out of money and is left to scrounge on the streets.
This was an absolutely fascinating novel! It was originally published in Hungary in 1970, but only translated into English two years ago. I’ve never read an Eastern European classic, nor do I think I’ve ever read anything translated from Hungarian, so this was a brand new experience all around, and an experience that I very much enjoyed.
The back of the book describes Metropole as a cross between Kafka’s The Trial and Orwell’s 1984, a combination which is exactly what I came up with myself! The whole set up of this large city (presumably Metropole, though the name is never mentioned in the text) is so surreal: crowds of people swarming all over at every time of day or night; a million different languages, so that it seems no one can understand each other; the sickly sweet underflavor to all the food; the giant pet rabbits all over the place. Watching Budai trying to work his way around Metropole is akin to reading the main character’s confusion in Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, only there is no one who can or is willing to help him.
I’m sure there are many ways to interpret Budai’s story, and the most likely interpretation has to do with the government in Hungary at the time of publication. Sadly, I know very, very little about political history, so I don’t even want to comment on those possible applications. I’d just embarrass myself. Instead, much of the book seemed to me to have another interpretation that I found interesting. It seemed to me that Metropole (the city) was a sort of Purgatory, in the Catholic sense of the word.
I found myself wondering if Budai had died and was flown/bussed off to a mid-level afterlife, having not been good enough for Heaven, but not bad enough for Hell. In Metropole/Purgatory, people are left in limbo, not being able to connect with each other, and left to make the best (or worst) of their situation. The idea seemed further indicated when Budai purposely tries to get himself arrested, hoping to get a chance to speak with an interpreter this way. The jail he spends the night in is boiling hot, absurdly so, and the guards are rude, violent, and disgusting. The food is all rancid and old, spoiled by the heat. I wondered, then, if this was a glimpse of Hell, if Budai is being shown what bad behavior in Purgatory will eventually get him.
I was further convinced of this interpretation when suddenly winter lifted, the sun came out, and the whole city seemed to gather for a party. There were city leaders in pure white outfits coming out to talk to people. Babies, the old, the feeble, and the handicapped were all loaded up to be taken away to great cheers from the crowd. The people from prison were likewise marched to the surface to be taken away in a different set of trucks. That made me think that those leaving Purgatory for Heaven or Hell did so during this yearly festival, and that people like Budai would simply remain there until they had proved themselves good enough or bad enough to leave.
Still, I’m not sure my interpretation is entirely valid, because there are a ton of things that happen at the festival that I won’t spoil here and they don’t seem to do much to support my thoughts. In fact, at the end I was left completely confused by the book. That’s not to say I didn’t appreciate it. In this case, being confused is actually really nice, because it makes me think. Weeks after reading it, I’m still thinking about it, and to me, that’s a mark of a very good book.