Le chapeau de Kafka

Le chapeau de KafkaSummary: In Patrice Martin’s ticklish tip of the hat to the writing of Franz Kafka, we follow the misadventures of a bureaucrat – aptly named “P.” (pun intended) – as he embarks on the illustrious task of collecting the titular headgear. “P.” expects that the accomplishment of this seemingly simple task will grant him both a professional and a personal promotion. But Martin’s eager protagonist has overlooked the systematic difficulty in modern bureaucracies – as well as in some of twentieth-century’s best fiction – of getting things done. And so Kafka’s hat is increasingly unreachable: express elevators get stuck between floors, rooms full of suitcases must be searched, unsympathetic bureaucrats must be confronted, and then there’s the rather unanticipated discovery of a fresh cadaver in the library … Naturally, “P.” knows that every hero has his coming-of-age trial to go through; trouble is, he’s no modern Ulysses.

Never departing in tone and timbre from a somewhat amicable and farcical, obstinately absurd storytelling style, Kafka’s Hat assembles a pleasant labyrinth of intertextual references, which make room for the diverse imaginary worlds of Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, and Paul Auster. Living in a different city, wearing new clothes, but still immersed in the part-tragic and part-comical ambience of Franz Kafka’s best existentialist literature, Patrice Martin’s “P.” is the compelling alter ego of a not-so-distant “Joseph K.” – still contemporary, still relevant.

Invoking some of modern literature’s most meaningful authors, Martin’s prose playfully reminds us that we do not create new work without reintroducing past fictions inside our present desires.

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Le chapeau de Kafka, by Patrice Martin 7.0

‘Le chapeau de Kafka’ is a short novel by Canadian author Patrice Martin. It’s a peculiar piece in that it doesn’t follow typical literary narrative structures: it starts in one story, moves on to another, which encapsulates the former and then it proceeds to a third one that throws in another storyline which wraps all three of them up neatly.

It’s not my usual cup of tea, but a couple of friends had read it and the short description was appealing to me: A methodical employee is sent out by his boss to collect a hat that he bought, Kafka’s hat – but the man is trapped inside a government building, with his attempts at retrieving the hat being impeded by all manners of absurd obstacles.

This made me think of the “la maison qui rend fou” sequence in ‘Les 12 travaux d’Astérix‘, perhaps the most memorable part of the movie. The notion of a story in this vein truly appealed to me, so I requested the book from the library. The moment I picked  it up, I was entirely caught up in it; I ate up the first 30 pages in no time at all.

I loved seeing P., our protagonist, make all sorts of calculations in the name of efficiency and get railroaded time and time again by all manner of unexpected events. Each time, he would do his best to roll with it and reconsider his plan and action with the new data in mind. No matter what he did, something would happen to derail him.

I laughed my head off. It was hilarious. At first. Then P. found himself in a suitcase room with a dead guard.

I disliked this whole sequence: it was entirely illogical. By then, we had come to believe that P. was a methodical, logical individual (although he overthinks minutia to the point of paralysis). This sequence made him seem completely irrational. He was still methodical, but his lapses in logic became greater and greater and more ridiculous.

What worked in the beginning was putting a logical man trapped in an insane environment (I haven’t read Kafka, but my understanding is that this would be Kafka-esque). The problem is that this aspect was suddenly neutered by making P. as absurd as the environment itself. In so doing, the situations were less comical and more bewildering.

It was tiring, even. I was beginning to lose my patience reading about this guy trying to figure out what to do with the dead security guard. It was bad enough that he didn’t make any sense whatsoever, but the sequence was interminable, lasting as long as the rest of the book thus far. I simply couldn’t wait for the darned thing to wrap up.

Unfortunately, when it finally did, my initial enthusiasm had been eclipsed.

The second chapter, which was barely half the length of this first one, did nothing to reclaim my interest. It told another story that was entirely unrelated aside for the fact that the protagonist was the author of the first chapter – which he also proceeded to continue. Aside for the return of P., this was a veritably dry section of the book.

The third chapter, which is half the length of the second one, was slightly more interesting because it had some existential discussions between three authors, as well as recounting the story of twins who disappeared after buying the final copies of the book discussed in the second chapter and recounted in the first. The author also amusingly breaks the fourth wall.

The ending was the ultimate payoff, but was utterly mind-boggling: it essentially converges the many characters even though they are all from different timelines; some are fiction others aren’t. I rather enjoyed this surrealist touch even if I wondered what it all meant (I don’t have a grasp of the author’s literary references and, thus, couldn’t savour what he was doing).

And that was part of the problem for me. Between my challenged understanding of the French language, and the fact that I’ve never read Kafka or any of the other authors referenced in this book, I had a limited understanding of Martin’s undoubtedly clever writing. I suspect that those with a better grasp of literature would likely enjoy this book far more than I did.

As it stands, ‘Le chapeau de Kafka’ was a little over my head.

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