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Back Catalogue #6 – Ferenc Karinthy, “Epepe” / “Metropole” (1970)

Ferenc Karinthy, EpepeWhat happens to social reality when you strip it of words and meaning? Can one experience a big modern city in the conditions of radical linguistic indeterminacy that W.O. Quine posited for the Amazonian rainforest? Is non-verbal communication still possible without a common verbal denominator? This is the subject (or one of the subjects) of Ferenc Karinthy’s extravagant novel Epepe (1970) – or Gulliver’s Travels as Kafka or Gombrowicz may have imagined them.

A brilliant crossover between a Großstadtfilm from the 1920s and André Delvaux’s semi-forgotten Une nuit, un train… (1968), in which Yves Montand is confronted with the same situation (there must be a connection of some sort!), Karinthy’s Epepe tells the story of a Hungarian linguist who boards the wrong plane on his way to a conference in Finland and finds himself at a loss in a sprawling foreign city whose national language is utterly incomprehensible to him. What’s more, nobody seems to understand any of the dozens of languages that the protagonist, Budai, an accomplished polyglot, frantically throws at the locals in his quest for orientation. The writing system and the phonetics of the mysterious foreign tongue are so complex and ambiguous that Budai, a professor of linguistics, has a hard time isolating even one meaningful word or syllable.

Things tend to happen by themselves in the hectic, overcrowded metropolis: before he can make heads or tails of his situation, Budai is booked in a grand hotel and his traveler’s checks are converted into local currency. As time and money run out, however, things begin to go downhill for the hapless guest, who has to find ways to survive in an increasingly hostile and opaque environment. The only gleam of hope is the mysterious female lift, Epepe, or Etete, or Bebe, or whatever her poorly articulated name sounds like (Budai can’t tell and will never know): she is the only human being in a city of millions with whom the protagonist makes a fleeting emotional contact.

Most of the novel is devoted to a description of the endless, chaotic metropolis, in which everything is European-looking, but feels slightly different (sports have funny rules, food is strangely sugary…). Throngs of morose passers-by are constantly jostling along the streets, crowding the subway lines or queuing up in front on the shops. All in all, this is what a soviet capital may have looked like to a visitor from the West in the 1970s. Which is surprising, because Ferenc Karinthy (the son of Frigyes Karinthy, whose medical memoir I have reviewed a few months ago) has lived most of his life in communist Budapest. Still, the atmosphere is strongly reminiscent of Western-block descriptions of Brežnev-era Moscow. Even the bewildered visitor from outside making human (and erotic) contact with a local girl in an otherwise dehumanized reality is a standard resource of the genre.

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Ferenc Karinthy, EpepePerceived through a veil of estrangement and alienation, things and situations take on a dreamlike quality. When you drain it of language, reality shrivels up and falls apart, disintegrating into a myriad of meaningless details, as if words and the possibility of verbal communication were the glue that held experience together. Gestures become mechanical and stupid, passions feel superfluous and grotesque, the incessant bustling of the city’s busy denizens comes across as self-referential. Budai is literally clueless: there are no bilingual signs, no “Rosetta stones”, no ways to tell a greeting from an insult, to figure out how the foreign language works, to even guess what a word refers to (again, this is reminiscent of Quine’s “gavagai” situation from Word and Object; Karinthy, himself a trained linguist, must have known it very well). Just when his erotic maneuvering with Epepe seems to have obtained him a “pillow dictionary”, Budai is unceremoniously evicted from the hotel for insolvency.

An epic of frustration and tragicomic resistance, Epepe is part of a quintessentially central-European tradition of coping with the absurdity of reality (a man-made, political reality) by mimetically incorporating the incongruous and the nightmarish as formal laws of artistic creation. Literature and theatre apart, one may think of the upsetting tongue-in-cheek satire of so many Czechoslovakian films from the 1960s, like Pavel Juráček’s Josef Kilián (1963), in which a man goes through bureaucratic hell to get rid of a cat that he has rented from a mysterious shop, or Jan Němec’s iconic A Report on the Party and Guests (1966), with its ambiguous allegories of ideological violence.

While never as enduringly popular as his father, Ferenc Karinthy (1921-1992) has made a name for himself in Hungarian literature on top of being an athlete and a scholar. But a few of his works have been translated into major European languages, foremost among these Epepe, whose situation in the English- and Italian-speaking canon, however, is still a little shaky (the English translation took 40 years; the Italian edition is currently out of print). Its reputation is much more solid in France, where the book, in its transmigrations from publisher to publisher, is on its way to becoming a minor classic (in some circles, at least).

The secret of such novels, whose recipe was probably lost after 1989, is in their extreme simplicity, in their adherence to the trivial details of life, in their utter lack of psychological pathos and panache. The style is unadorned and matter-of-fact, at times adorably petulant in its mimicking the perceptions of a little man in a suit at grips with paradox, but it goes a long way in addressing aspects of the human condition through configurations of the mundane and the banal.

Halfway through the novel, while still living at the grand hotel, Budai peeks into a room adjoining his own and finds it inexplicably full of cages containing dumb-looking and foul-smelling angora rabbits. This image “means” nothing, it leads to nothing, but the unexpected, illogical, and shockingly idiotic vision paralyzes the reader with the horror of a glimpse into Hades. From that moment, one just knows that no redemption is possible. A dozen layers of Hollywood sauce could never touch this. A treat for the discerning connoisseur.

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