Quebecois author Patrice Martin’s first book, translated into English by Chantal Bilodeau as Kafka’s Hat and published by Talon, is strongly influenced by Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, and Paul Auster. I’m putting this up front because it is something Martin really, really wants you to know. These authors are named in the jacket copy, all three are quoted for epigraphs, all three are repeatedly mentioned, quoted, or read during the course of the book, and, in the end, all three make their own parodic appearances. There is also, of course, Martin’s claim to Kafka, with the hat of the title playing the MacGuffin and a single initial protagonist, P. However, a stronger comparison, though with less claim to groundbreaking heights, would be Murakami—strange things happen to characters for no reason; their boring, private, structured lives are broken and exchanged with interesting, surprising ones; characters repeatedly make sudden decisions “without knowing exactly what is motivating [them]”; and, of course, love is found suddenly, by chance. It is this last reference point that says the most about what Martin accomplishes, rather than what he aspires to accomplish.
The first and longest of the book’s three sections focuses on the protagonist P. Set up as an analogue to Kafka’s Ks, he instead begins as something more interesting, and anxiety-inducing. His is a world of the mundane—when he enters a cab, he “exchang[es] a few banalities with the driver about the weather, chronic traffic jams and the New York tourist season”—so when he is given a mission by the Boss at Stuff & Things, Co., his one thought is to accomplish this business in order to be a good, successful, productive, and eventually rewarded employee. P. is not particularly interested in the importance of the hat of a famous writer, in fact he cannot remember who the writer is. His only interest comes from wondering why the Boss could want such a hat, what importance a writer could have to such an important business man. The mission and its strange interruptions begin P.’s break from what he believes about himself, that:
He is, after all, a rational man. He loves playing chess. He reads articles on project management and public administration. Every night before he goes to bed, he takes a few minutes to reflect on his day. He takes his planner and reviews all the steps he wrote the night before. Then he determines what needs following up and plans the next day; he jots down a to-do list in a small notebook and puts it in his jacket pocket . . . . Once he is done, he slips under the covers and grabs the book on his bedside table (invariably a self-help manual). He then reads for exactly fifteen minutes, switches the light off and falls fast asleep.
This cold, structured rationality is what P. puts his faith in, what he believes will move him on and through the world. Martin’s humor (as when P. is particularly proud of a decision and “happy about the usefulness of books—the books in reference being those self-help books gently mocked more than once by the author) warns early on that this way of life may be both flawed in intent, and–for P.–flawed in execution. After elevator and elevator service hijinks, P., searching for a safe, effective way to Kafka’s hat, comes across a dead body (one of those chance, it-just-is events that serve no purpose of their own and can be replaced with any other event), which he then decides he must hide. There is no reason given for this decision, and it begins to clearly reveal the cracks in P.’s faith of reason. This is a man who, when making a list of steps to take, ends the list with “Step 4. Implement the first three steps right away.” The humor here is Martin’s, and P. is shown not as the K. it is so easy to compare him to, but to the bureaucratic antagonists who litter Kafka’s work. The assistants from The Castle come to mind, with the anxiety-inducing “rationale” that they subject K. to, interrupting and defeating his efforts to accomplish anything. Here, we are siding with P. as he interferes with himself, hoping he might see his way through such absurdities as when he closes his eyes to hear better, leading to: “He then tries to validate his hypothesis by closing and opening his eyes every ten seconds. He notices no improvement in his hearing. He figures there may not be anything to hear.” When he does eventually hear a knock louder than the one he heard with eyes open, he undermines himself with the realization that “he too knocked a little louder the second time.” It is this endless rationalization of possibility that freezes P. and leaves him to be determined by events, and those times when he acts even though “He can’t even imagine how the idea crossed his mind.”
The breakdown of P.’s ability to make decisions as he spirals in his version of rationality eventually leads him to a (chance) meeting with a woman who (by chance) is a Kafka fan, reading a book (by chance) that contains stories by Auster, Borges, and Calvino, the same three authors P. finds books by (chance again) in a bag he attempts to hide the discovered dead body in. For the record, the woman is also writing a book about a man who has written a book about the three authors. This is the type of metafiction at play, the belief that simply complicating the story with layers of stories conscious of another layer being a story is enough. This interaction, along with the reading of fragments of a manuscript found in the same bag, themselves interrupting the overall narrative, are enough for P. to start to discover the great power of storytelling—a realization which falls slightly flat, given its similarity with the mocking “usefulness” of self-help books.
After this, there are two more sections of the novel. One is the story of yet another writer, another life-changing and sudden meeting with a woman without a background of her own, and the third a brief tale of Calvino, Auster, and Borges heading off to a conference on The Writer as Character. Split among these are the stories found and read by P. Each plays itself in the style of one of the three authors (Calvino’s is about reading; Borges is about math; Auster’s has a detective and the protagonist is Mr. Martin) and, in fact, in their briefness and lack of holding back, manage to succeed in ways the rest of the novel does not. Instead of proclaiming influence as important in itself, they skillfully follow the lead. The careful description of and explanation behind the thought process for holding a book in the exact right position so that one can both read and not miss his bus is one of the more delightful moments in Kafka’s Hat. Neither of the latter two sections has quite the same humor as the first, and the stories are even more sparse; they mainly serve to promote that mission of metafiction, winking self-awareness, yet directionless. The second narrative gives us an author stand-in, Max, driving to New York to try to meet Auster in order to get him to write a preface to Max’s novel: “If Paul Auster agrees to contribute to my novel, no editor will be able to refuse it!” It is a desperate confusion that influence is the same thing as merit, and as in other places in the novel, it isn’t clear if this is wholly a character’s belief, or if it is Martin’s, too. Along with multiple stand-ins for the author, P.’s tale is also told in the other two sections—cleverly in Max’s as his explanation of his novel, matching what we just read of P. Here, Martin does intertwine them nicely: as Max describes the story, when it catches up to where we last left off, the narrative fully kicks back to P. It is fun, playful, but still has a lack, and leads nowhere besides itself. An intertwining text as an end in itself is simply a loose knot.
Patrice Martin may not reach the goals he set by comparison, but in this slim first effort, there is enough to find cheer and praise in. Almost as if he can’t yet avoid them, Martin allows himself to dwell in small clichés, particularly in his characterizations. That the characters here are flat is not entirely a flaw, and so when Max needs a deep thought “He grabs another cigarette, lights it and inhales deeply, as if he expected the river’s salty air to clear both his thoughts and his lungs. But nothing happens.” Even the character tics are given to cliché, “Max likes irony so, as he finishes the cigarette he usually smokes in the car, he smiles from the corner of his mouth.” These keen, playful expressions of the mundane give Martin some of his finer pieces of writing, and show that when he drops the metafictional games his attachment to influences raise, he does have characters to live with. And more importantly, given the way Kafka’s Hat proclaims the love and importance of story, Martin can tell one—when he is able to move onto his own, instead of someone else’s.