“P. turns around and, one foot on the concrete, the other in the car, caught between freedom and oppression, between yesterday and today, he takes his hat as if it were a gift from the heavens.”
It’s starts innocuously enough: our hero, P., is sent by his boss (neither of whom, by the way, have ever met face to face) to pick up a hat his boss won in an auction. Not just “a” hat: it’s one of a kind, worn by author Franz Kafka. So P. sets off and gets to the building, gets in the elevator and promptly gets stuck. But no. Actually the story is about a man named Max trying to get such a story published. Or about three men reading Max’s story.
Translated from the French (Le chapeau de Kafka), this book is a nice read from a Québec-based author Patrice Martin. The overpowering bureaucracy encountered is humorous as it dances close to reality. Really, you have to sort of feel bad for P.: the guy just gets things thrown at him that are increasingly ridiculous. His reactions to these situations are equally as absurd. Fans of Kafka will easily spot the references: P. is an homage to the similarly-named K. from The Castle, and the characters Max and Dora are named after people in Kafka’s life (Max Brod, Kafka’s literary executor, and Dora Diamant, Kafka’s lover).
This is a work of fiction that is painfully aware that it is a work of fiction and tries to point this fact out. The epigraphs of the book contain quotes by authors Paul Auster, Jorge Luis Borges, and Italo Calvino, and these three authors will come back a lot in the story. For instance, P. reads about these authors while he tries to hide a dead body (long story); a character reads about a book about these three authors. The different points of view make comments about the previous sections, which made me stop and read the sentence again since it jarred against the flow of the book. I suppose this jarring feeling is a good feature for this book, but at the same time, it is also as if the story is trying to point to itself a few too many times, saying, “Look! Metafiction!”
In one of the parts, a character asks if someone would actually read a story about a man sent to retrieve Kafka’s hat for his boss. Well, yes. Someone would, apparently. It’s worth a quick read.
Oh, and yes, the picture with Kafka and the hat (and the dog) is a real thing.
Kafka’s Hat by Patrice Martin (trans. Chantal Bilodeau) is available now.