“Epepe” by Ferenc Karinthy

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Languages again. I read this extraordinary novel a few months ago, but its presence is still very accurate, and we regularly talk about it with a friend whom I offered a french edition of the book.

Ferenc Karinthy was hungarian. He died in 1992 and wrote “Epepe” in 1970, but it’s only in 2008 that it was translated in english. The french traduction comes earlier, 1996, several editors since then have published this title.

“Epepe” tells the story of Budaï, a man lost in a kafkaesque and huge town, in an indistinct era somewhere on earth. Budai is a famous linguist, at the beginning of the novel he’s arriving in Helsinki by plane for a global congress about languages. There is only one problem : the town he’s discovering is NOT Helsinki. It’s the beginning of his nightmare :

  • Because of the tiredness of the travel, he didn’t notice he lost his identity papers.
  • Everyone around him speaks an UNKNOWN LANGUAGE.
  • Despite his extensive knowledge of a large amount of languages, he CAN’T make himself understood, neither understand what he’s told.
  • People are rude, brutal, they don’t care about him.

After the first moments of surprise, Budaï thinks he’s the victim of an error : he has landed to this town by accident, thus he must quit his hotel and return to the airport to reach Helsinki and his congress. But everything he tries is very complicated, even trying to move inside the town.

Little by little, he tries to learn the mysterious language of these people, but it seems that this language has NO CONSTANT BASIS, it does evolve according to the context or to who is speaking. Despite his deep knowledge of language and linguistics, Budaï is not able to theorize the language, consequently to understand and speak it, the last straw for a linguist !

I won’t tell more of the story because it’s terribly exciting. Everytime there is a new problem, you just can’t believe it, you think this poor Budaï is damned.

 

In the Denoël translation of the book (see the photo above), there is a very good foreword by french novelist Emmanuel Carrère. He’s drawing a sort of camparison between Budaï and the astonishing story of Andras Toma, a hungarian soldier. Toma was 19 when he was enlisted in the Wehrmacht during the second world war. At the end of the conflict, he was arrested by the red army and put in jail in Russia. He soon became lunatic and couldn’t speak but hungarian, so neither did the psychiatrists try to understand him, neither did he try to learn russian. He was rediscovered in…year 2000, and sent back to his native village in Hungary. A documentary on his life is underway :

The big difference with Budaï is that Budaï is a linguist, so he has intellectual powers and methods to try to communicate in this strange language, and that’s what a great part of “Epepe” is about. This book will appeal to those who like languages, to those who like absurd, to those who like never ending stories.