Franz Kafka worked for an insurance company even though he’d studied to be a lawyer. He hated being financially dependent on his day job but the labyrinthine bureaucracies he pilloried as a writer, and his descriptions of psychological torture, gave rise to the term Kafkaesque. Let’s face it — Kafkaesque, used to handily describe all manner of existential confusion, became a very useful word in (and for) the 20th century. I don’t see it going out of fashion any time soon.
Kafka’s brilliant stories, like “The Hunger Artist,” “The Trial,” “The Castle,” and, the bad-day of all bad-day stories, The Metamorphosis, are hard stones of profound alienation that often begin on a note of wide-eyed fairy tale:
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”
Like Franz Kafka, Québec author Patrice Martin has worked behind a desk within the labyrinth of government — as clerk for the House of Commons, and as a municipal councillor. Kafka’s Hat, his debut novel, is translated by Chantal Bilodeau, an award-winning New York-based playwright and translator, and is published by Talonbooks. Their almost-50 year longevity makes Talonbooks one of the oldest surviving Canadian book publishers which they attribute to an unbroken chain of mentoring and a commitment to new literary fiction. From their website:
“We are Canada’s largest independent publisher of drama; do more translations from Québec than anyone else; and publish more Native voices than any other Canadian publisher with the exception of First Nations publisher Theytus Books.”
For information about manuscript submission, see their Submission Guidelines.
And now, here’s Justin Lauzon with his review of Kafka’s Hat.
Space, Time and Text
A Review of Kafka’s Hat, by Patrice Martin (trans. by Chantal Bilodeau)
Kafka’s Hat is a book of narrative freedom. Darkly humorous, inventive, and insightful, Patrice Martin’s imaginative tale is a story that extends beyond the possibilities of reality and enters the realm of magic. Beware: this short novel is layered and entwined, and may cause a deep sensation of tickled ribs and a strained mind.
The novel follows the adventure of P., the succinctly named main character, as he is sent on a personal errand for his boss to search for and acquire the famed hat of Franz Kafka. The majority of the action occurs in a single building, eventually incorporating two other storylines, which detail other characters entirely. These three sections, divided very clearly, each have a separate function in the novel as a whole.
It’s impossible to accurately describe the novel without noting Martin’s influences, which he does not shy away from revealing to us. He includes Franz Kafka, Paul Auster, Jorge Luis Borges, and Italo Calvino in a variety of ways in the narrative. Each has a large bearing on the story itself in terms of style, voice, and narrative direction, but eventually the latter three become characters themselves in the narrative, hinting at our need to know who these guys are. Fortunately, you don’t need to have read these writers to enjoy the novel, but it helps. Although not explicitly stated, each author seems to belong to one of the three sections of the novel, bearing their acute influence, which Martin executes extraordinarily well at most times.
First up to bat: Italo Calvino. The main narrative, following the principal character P., reads much like Calvino’s Mr. Palomar, which is about a similar character – introverted and over analytical – although to a much more dark and humorous effect. Martin steps away from the deep philosophical analysis that Calvino engaged in and embraces the neurosis of everyday life, deconstructing the most mundane tasks as complex, infinitely regressing actions.
In his search for the hat, P. finds himself in horrendously playful situations, like carefully reasoning where to hide a dead man, or lying to the blind. Martin’s approach is so effective, we are left in chuckling bewilderment that such a character could even get up in the morning, let alone have a job. It becomes obvious that while Martin is certainly paying homage to his literary influences, he is quite obviously poking fun at them too, revealing how a thoroughly analytical mind like Palomar’s can be debilitating. He has created a laughable, relatable character with P. through this contrast.
Whereas insightful Palomar casually cranes his neck to philosophize about the heavenly bodies, for pages, P. doesn’t even think to look up when stuck in an elevator, which, he is informed, 99.4 percent of people do. Immediately he “wonders why he didn’t react like everyone else,” and is shocked to know he is “now in the camp of people he loathes – irrational, unthinking, unpredictable people!” He wants to be Mr. Palomar, but he can’t quite make it. He’s only P., a strange character, set against the backdrop of literature’s most insightful minds. This is what makes him so singular and endearing.
Next up: Paul Auster. The second section, far less humorous than the first, follows the character Max in his quest to publish his manuscript about P. (revealing that the first section is only part of a manuscript – er – sort of), by presenting it to Auster, the main influence of this section and a character later in the novel. Yes, Martin’s short narrative does become increasingly layered, but that only adds to the fun of the book later.
This section is written well enough, but is marked by a lack of what makes the rest of the book truly interesting. It stands with the same clear and clever writing, but most of it seems to be used just as a vehicle to complete the novel later. Martin presents new characters but doesn’t give them much depth, and so this section falls slightly flat, finishing rather undeveloped.
Last to the plate: Jorge Luis Borges. The third section is where meta-fiction lovers (myself included) get their real treat. This one has Borges written all over it. Here, Martin sets the three principal writers, Auster, Borges, and Calvino, on a drive from New York to Montreal to participate as the guests of honour in a conference called The Writer as Character (not too subtle there, Martin). The three authors, who clearly never carpooled together in real life, engage in a conversation of ideologies, of philosophy, and of storytelling.
Take, for instance, Auster-as-character’s analysis:
“For them, life only makes sense insofar as it can be broken into increasingly smaller, observable parts, or viewed through increasingly larger, universal principles. Life is here, in the countless details of day-to-day experience, in all that is unpredictable and incomprehensible about the very act of living.”
You can decide with whom to throw your hat.
Despite the distance of time and space which limited this conversation in the real world, which Martin refers to in the text, he presents the impossibility with such clarity and measured pacing, the reader might be persuaded to think this event actually did happen, and Martin sat there with these great masters writing it all down. It’s a clear tip of the hat to Borges’ surpassing of the space-time continuum in stories such as “The Other” and “August 25, 1983,” while carrying elements of Auster’s writing like City of Glass to really give it a punch.
It’s the conclusion of the final section (no, I will not reveal to you what happens), bringing together the other two narratives about P. and Max, that leave the reader (that would be me, and eventually you) thinking for days. Although it ends rather abruptly, these three stories intersect, becoming endlessly layered atop one another like a fictive-labyrinth. In fact, it becomes so delightfully complicated that you may be compelled to use some scrap paper to figure it all out (take a lesson from P. and use numbers to keep everything straight – I did), as Martin suggests: “the reader should immediately take out the notebook in which he writes his thoughts, because in a few lines, it might be too late.” Martin knows the immense task he’s giving us, and even if you still have difficulty, the conclusion is too playfully inventive to be frustrated with it.
The one major misstep of the novel is length. As if still trying to pay homage to his heroes, Martin keeps the book strikingly brief at less than 150 pages. While there is a tradition in French Québec literature of these concise novella-length novels, I find this form restricts Martin’s complex work rather than tightening it up. P.’s narrative could have been at least 20 – 30 pages longer, as could Max’s, allowing the space to flesh out the characters, or even vary the emotional range. At the length it is now, issues with repetition, character depth, and the ending’s abruptness become rather glaring. On that note, I would have enjoyed spending more time in conversation with the characters as well. They all had so much to say, but they didn’t get the chance.
That said, this novel is endlessly interesting to discuss, map out, and timeline with a few good friends. Just as the way many of the three authors’ stories looped and fell back on themselves, Kafka’s Hat successfully does the same. Anything is possible in fiction, Martin seems to be telling us. Literature incorporates the mundane with the infinite, the laughable with the grim, and for his first novel, Patrice Martin achieves this through the singular axiom of the masters: “words are all we have to describe the world and create it. Everything else is trivial.”
By Justin Lauzon
Justin Lauzon is one of Descant’s newest volunteers. He recently co-authored, with Jack Hostrawser, this review for us. Justin is a writer and teacher from Oakville, interested in magic realism. He studied fiction at York University and the Humber School for Writers, and is currently working on his first novel. Check out his film blog, “The Alternate Take,” here and follow him on twitter, @JLauzonwrites.