Saturday, 19 July 2014

Ferenc Karinthy - Metropole

Karinthy's Metropole was given to me in France over Christmas by my brother-in-law; it appears to have been published in French in 1999 by Editions DENOEL and in English in 2008 by Telegram (UK). is a Kafka-like novel. I had never heard of the novel or the author, but now understand that he was from Hungary, and according to the back cover, was a novelist, playwright, journalist and water polo champion. Busy people, these Hungarians!

As others have noted, it is a Kafkaesque tale, built on a simple premise (like The Trial, where Joseph K is under arrest but doesn't know why). In this case, the protagonist Budai is on a trip to Helsinki to attend a linguists' conference but someone ends up on the wrong plane, and subsequently, in an unknown, multicultural city, somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere (he eventually establishes, from the stars) but really - God-knows-where. Budai's incomprehension at his fate bears some similarity to Joseph K; it's a matter of a European bureaucracy
and initial rage against the scandal of ill-treatment ('He hardly knew what he was shouting. He demanded his passport and aeroplane ticket; he wanted to see the manager, he called for an interpreter, he raged and threatened ... p.20). From here, it's a slow path to reconciliation and an acceptance of his fate, to be a stranger in a strange land, to live and function without his former identity and despite his vast knowledge of languages, to be able to make no (and eventually, only some) understanding of a language which sounds something like this: 'Gorrabittepropopotu? Vivi tereplebeubeu?' (p.23).

The blurb describes the novel as 'suspenseful' but this is stretching things. It's more like agonising; it's the tradition of Beckett and perhaps Sartre ('No Exit'). It's an absurd premise which would make a neat short story but I think could only turn into a novel and be published as such by a Hungarian living in the Soviet-era (it was published in 1970). The novel develops some conventional ideas, such as a relationship with a lift attendant that keeps the protagonist going for a while, but eventually he ends up on the streets, and joins the bums earning a pittance loading and unloading trucks around the markets. I thought of the end of Paul Auster's City of Glass when I read this section. The last part of the novel involves Budai accidently joining in a violent revolutionary movement from which he eventually flees. The ending is ambiguous and yes, the novel is haunting as promised (if only because it sort of echoes a fate which you read as universal and yet Other). I'd recommend this book, but only for readers happy to suffer a little for their art (the art of reading). Dystopias are not meant to be fun, but the absurdist humour comes close; it's not so much 'the pleasure of the text' as 'the pleasurable agony of the text'.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

The Dancer Upstairs - Nicholas Shakespeare

I have read three Nicholas Shakespeare novels in recent years, and have found each one to be intriguing - novels with plots, which I like, novels about troubled men and mysterious women. Call me old fashioned, but I like that combination as well.

I read the novels all out of order in terms of when they were published, not that this probably matters very much. Inheritance (2011) appealed to me with the premise of the failed writer who inherits millions by chance and has all the distrust to deal with that comes with that. There's an Australian mining story behind the money and a search for the truth in events of the past. I really enjoyed Snowleg (2004) and its evocation of East Germany before the wall came down; two cities I know well enough feature in the story - Leipzig in the East, and Hamburg in the West. The protagonist, Peter, falls in love in Leipzig but the authorities get in the way and he leaves with profound regrets, guilt and uncertainty about his actions which plagues him for years. Again, a search in the past for the truth creates narrative interest.

The Dancer Upstairs is a modern terrorist novel, a genre which ought to be very important in the contemporary age, if done well (and this one is). It gives insight into the elusive, intellectual guru Peruvian leader Ezequiel; our police protagonist tells the story to an English journalist and reveals his love for a dancer, an idealistic young woman, as well as the rural setting where the revolt draws strength and represents Rejas's past. Like Snowleg, the novel also gives the reader insight into the corrupt and powerful state. Technically, there's a lot of dialogue in the novel; setting up a conversation scene that carries the plot forward is not easy and students of fiction writing (like yours truly) might be wise to study a few pages to see just how Shakespeare does it. Shakespeare. What a burden to carry! No wonder his novels are full of dark ideas, with empty male characters struggling with demons in a world of deception and distrust. Enjoy!