A Top Hat with Tales

A novel that folds four iconic authors into an ingenious plot

In the essay “Kafka and His Precursors,” Jorge Luis Borges shows how reading an author’s work can reveal qualities that are concealed in the writing of previous authors. He argues that influence is determined by the order in which readers read texts, rather than the order in which they were written—a view he demonstrates by pointing out ideas in Zeno of Elea, Han Yu, Søren Kierkegaard and Robert Browning that would not exist for readers who had not previously read Franz Kafka. Borges’s novel approach places the onus on readers to attribute meaning to texts based on their own reading history.

Patrice Martin’s Kafka’s Hat is a skillful demonstration of Borges’s claim, drawing his reader’s attention to shared stylistic and thematic aspects latent in the texts of four preceding writers: Borges, Paul Auster, Italo Calvino and Kafka. Martin brings together some of his precursors’ most distinctive devices—circular plots, labyrinthine structures, intertextual references, questions of identity, invocations of the author as character—in a playful, meta-literary work that extends and illuminates his precursors’ ideas about the relationship between readers, writers and texts.

Kafka’s Hat has three intertwined plots. It opens with a story about a man named P. and a hat that once belonged to Kafka. P. has been sent to the customs building in New York to collect the hat. Faced with escalating levels of administrative absurdity, P. struggles with his task; by the time he succeeds, he has discovered a mysterious literary manuscript, met his soulmate and found himself on the wrong side of the law. Later, when P. and his companion flee the city, he tells her the story of his ordeal.

The second story is about a man named Max who has written a novel in the style of Auster. After a number of rejections from publishers, Max decides that the only way to guarantee his novel’s success is to have Auster write a foreword. On the way to find Auster, Max picks up a hitchhiker named Dora to whom he describes his novel: a story about a man named P. and a hat that once belonged to Kafka …

The third story is about Borges, Calvino and Kafka, who are driving to Montreal to be guests of honour at a conference on the author as fictional character. On the journey, they discuss the nature of fiction and the mysterious, supposedly true tale of a pair of twins who disappear after reading Kafka’s Hat: a story about a man named P. and a hat that once belonged to Kafka …

The novel starts in the style of Kafka, borrowing trademark features such as the abbreviation of the author’s name to a single letter—in this case P. for Patrice or possibly (as the narrator suggests) for his precise actions. At first, it seems as though Martin is simply mimicking Kafka’s style, but as he enlists elements from Auster, Borges and Calvino, the book becomes an entertaining web of intertextual connections. For example, the man and woman driving to New York are named Max and Dora after Kafka’s confidant and his final lover; at one point, Max makes a joke of his plan, saying, “going to Brooklyn is pure folly!”—a reference to Auster’s The Brooklyn Follies. Occasionally, these allusions are sufficiently obscure that the novel seems to have been written for those best acquainted with Martin’s precursors.

Other aspects of the novel are more accessible, particularly the Kafkaesque plot, which will amuse anyone who has experienced the sort of mind–boggling bureaucracy that P. faces. There is something disconcertingly familiar about the logic P. employs when hiding a security guard’s corpse in a storeroom of suitcases. He draws up a four-step plan, but upon realizing that he has only accomplished one step (a 25 percent completion rate), he adds two already-completed steps to the list to increase his rate to 50 percent. Adding to the absurdity is the fact that, even in dire circumstances, P. is unwilling to break trivial rules: “Since there is no ladder—stationary or portable—P. figures that to put a suitcase on the top shelf, one has to resort to a forklift. Since he has never operated this kind of vehicle, and doesn’t hold a licence authorizing him to do so, he will have to hide the body at ground level.” For all their ridiculousness, P.’s experiences—and his exceedingly rational responses—are plausible. They render believable Martin’s assertion that he has “been bumping into the spirit of Kafka for most of his adult life,” as a clerk in the House of Commons and member of the Gatineau municipal council.

Over the novel, P.’s concerns with bureaucracy gradually become philosophical, as he contemplates causality, rationality and the nature of literature. P. wonders whether his future hinges on collecting Kafka’s hat, and he questions his circumstances and the methods he devises for navigating them. The conclusions that P. draws to explain his condition are unsatisfactory and often contradictory. When faced with a difficult decision, he rationalizes that “action leads to knowledge, which leads to action, which leads to knowledge, which leads to action, and so on,” only to later conclude that “contrary to what we are taught from our earliest childhood, knowledge leads to inaction.”

When Kafka’s Hat opens out to subsequent plots and characters (Max and Dora; Borges, Calvino and Kafka; the twins who read Kafka’s Hat), it becomes a meditation on readership, authorship and the novel. Following the model set by his precursors, Martin draws his readers’ attention to his book’s status as a fictional construct. Versions of Kafka’s Hat appear throughout the story: it is “a book about hats and dead writers’ ghosts,” “a book with a tragic ending” and “the story of an improbable but catastrophic meeting between reality and fiction.” The characters nod to this recursion and its implications: Max wonders whether, “at best, the story of a man who wants to meet Paul Auster, hoping Auster will read a novel about a man on a quest for Kafka’s hat, might make a good novel. Difficult to say at this point.”

In the book’s final pages, Martin addresses the roles of the author and reader head on, highlighting the degree to which any story is assembled by an author and interpreted by a reader:

Those three men [Borges, Calvino and Kafka] … are here only to remind us that words can do extraordinary things: they can invent worlds where the dead and the living walk side by side; they can create a character whose traits remind us of an author, himself half-man, half-character; and they can bring writers, who never met in real life, together on the page. Those three men were also brought here to plant doubt in the mind of the reader, who will eventually have to decide what meaning to give to the last scene of this story about hats and extraordinary writers.

Although Martin brought Auster, Borges, Calvino and Kafka together, the reader must make sense of their conjunction. The attention Kafka’s Hat draws to the fictional texts within the text, to Martin’s intertexts and to the shift in responsibility from author to reader are all in the spirit of Borges’s Kafka and His Precursors, showing again how it is up to the reader to attribute meaning to a text.