Things go wrong in most stories. It would be a dull plot that did not include an upset, a setback or an obstacle.
But it takes a special kind of reversal to turn one of these plots into a black comedy. Often it's a tiny slip that becomes a vortex of disaster; sometimes it's a growing avalanche of humiliation.
But it's always hewn from the stuff of everyday life, which we see transformed into a minefield using only the slightest shift in perspective. And it allows us to laugh while giving thanks it's not happening to us.
It would be a terrible idea to pack Metropole for your next trip. Ferenc Karinthy's story of a Hungarian linguist on his way to a conference in Helsinki who instead finds himself trapped in an unknown country will certainly hold your attention through a long flight. But it may cause panic about what awaits you once you land.
Things have changed a bit since Metropole was first published to great acclaim in Hungary in 1970. These days, airport security would certainly stop Budai, Karinthy's flummoxed protagonist, from boarding the wrong plane. Although it took almost 40 years for Metropole to be translated into English, the book holds up well. In the same way that Kafka becomes relevant again every time you renew your driver's license, Karinthy captures that enduring, horrifying and exhilarating state of being at the mercy of an unfamiliar land.
Once Budai realizes he's in the wrong country — and as strange as things are there, perhaps the wrong planet — he takes refuge in a tiny hotel room. Outside his door, chaos and cacophony reign: rooms crammed with people, cages teeming with angora rabbits and streets so congested the traffic appears not to move at all. He tells himself he'll clear things up in the morning. But his passport and luggage are missing; a painful attempt to mime the word embassy to the hotel clerk fails.
The comparison to Kafka is apt, but Karinthy — a prolific Hungarian-born novelist and playwright who died in 1992 — reaches more for screwball comedy than tormented existentialism. Although angst is here in spades. Budai is a specialist in language and yet is so incapable of parsing the local tongue he cannot even understand the name of the woman he is sleeping with. It's as if he unknowingly hired Sartre as his travel agent.
Anyone who has stepped onto the wrong train, insulted an entire language trying to order breakfast or had unforeseen circumstance wipe out his or her budget halfway around the world will find Budai's plight discomforting. But it's soothing, too, because no matter how badly your travels might go, you'll forever be able to tell yourself, "At least I'm not stuck in Metropole."