All his attempts to understand the language, written or spoken, fail. He learns how to use the metro system and explores the city, but is unable to find an airport, a train station, a river, or any other way out, losing hope of making it to his conference or — as time goes by — ever returning to his family. He deliberately gets himself arrested, he finds work as a manual labourer when his money runs out, and he is caught up in a street uprising, but none of these or his other adventures bring any answers. Everyone is just too busy to try to communicate with him, and the only relationship he manages to establish is with the lift operator in his hotel, though he can't properly work out her name — Edede, Pepe, Bébé, Epepe, or is it Veve?
"His achievements thus far were sickeningly insignificant. He hadn't enough information to deduce a system: he could not even put a sentence together. And when he tried using the words he knew, or the words he supposed he knew, to enquire, for example, where he might find a café or a metro station he was surprised to find that he was either misunderstood or not understood at all. Could he be mispronouncing the words? That would not be unlikely, having heard the curious, alien-sounding articulations of the locals. Later though, in one of the underground tunnels of the metro, some kind of altercation broke out, and Budai noticed that everyone was merely shouting and rambling, with no-one paying any attention to anyone else. Could it be that they themselves could not understand each other, that 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."
There is no dialogue in Metropole — perhaps only eleven words that communicate anything — and Budai is the only character of any depth, since the narrative remains tied to his point-of-view. There is some interest in his attempted relationship with Dédé, but mostly the story is carried by his attempts to understand the language, his exploration of the city, and his internal turmoil. Though often downcast and often frustrated, Budai never despairs, never abandons hope, and gamely faces new challenges and new failures. The mysterious, sprawling metropolis also takes on a life of its own, seen from the perspective of a linguistically-challenged alien.
Metropole was published in Hungary in 1970, as Epepe, and perhaps there are traces of that context in the violent but ultimately futile street uprising, or in Budai's descent from middle class academia to menial labour amongst the lumpenproletariat. But Karinthy's ideas are more universal. His is a nightmare scenario of existential alienation, of an effective ostracism even in the middle of a hive of social activity. It can also be understood as a study in the psychological implications of communication failure. In this regard Metropole is reminiscent of Stanislaw Lem's classic His Master's Voice, though it is about the travails of an individual trying and failing to communicate with society rather than of a group failing to understand a single message.
The basic premise of Metropole is sustained with verve: there are certainly seams, but as with the best science fiction they are not visible and one doesn't catch on them as one is reading. The effect is an intense, thought-provoking, and memorable novel.