A hat is not a hat, the Mad Hatter said to Alice, a steaming cup of tea teetering in his left hand, or, at least, not merely a hat. And if you don’t agree, take a look at this one, like a palette with a teapot on top, and it suits you to a tee, so aesthetic. In Paris you’ve lost your tête over a totally artful artiste who invites you to his studio and makes you pose naked for an eternity. You were as cold as charity in that terrible atelier, teeth chattering like castanets, as you lay there like a mindless naked Maja while he just goes on painting you, feet planted firmly in front of his easel, and to start to warm you up he finally offers you tea and sympathy, an artistic tease you find entirely enticing and that puts an end to your timidity. Don’t be a prude, he prompts, perching his one-holed beret on your head as a hat, which looks to you like the palette he doesn’t have, and now you can see through the crazed looking-glass on the far wall that in reality you only truly exist on the canvas where he embodies and embraces you.
With much use and many years this hat from Prague has grown so subtle, so subtle, the Mad Hatter insisted, that it is now perfectly transparent, and, with the utmost care, he went to place on Alice’s head thin air that he seemed to have delicately removed with his fingertips from an empty shelf in his somber and surprising hat shop. Its wide wings will fly you to the magic city of its origins, he added, as he tilted the invisible hat to the right, and the hands of your watch will move backwards, like those on the clock of the Jewish Town Hall in the Prague ghetto, until they come to the year of Our Lord 1915. A shadow among the shadows of the night, you think, as you stand in front of the newly erected, phantasmagoric statue of Jan Huss. You hurry aimlessly along the labyrinth of the ghetto, most of it leveled years before. You feel as weightless as the papers on the large market square, deserted in the small hours of the morning. You still have a few hours before you take your place at the till in the Capharnaüm hat shop, in the Josefov quarter, and you wonder if you should retrace your steps down Caletna Street and rush into the Café Arco at 16 Hybernská, where it is possible that your friends Milena, Jarmila, and Stasa are still catching everyone’s eye. Or would it perhaps be preferable to kill some time at Loisitchel’s den? The memory of an enigmatic and distinguished gentleman who appeared not long ago in your hat shop with someone else’s hat makes you change your mind abruptly, turn down Karlova Street, and cross over the Charles Bridge to the left bank of the Vltava, heading toward the Castle. In the lonely cathedral square of the Castle, you recall with some disquiet the strange events caused by the hat. Or rather, by transposed hats. Are your recollections really recent or do they reflect a remote past? You feel as if time is not time on the clock, and an aura of unreality surrounds you. A short (a short?) while ago, as you went down the Street of the Alchemists, it seemed that the houses were doll houses, that you had grown as if once again you had devoured the very small cake that read EAT ME. In any case, you remember clearly the gentleman in his forties with the look of a French aristocrat, svelte, dark, with a goatee, who presented himself in your hat shop with a large felt in the shape of a reclining 8, to ask if you knew its owner. Apparently, in a pew in the cathedral during High Mass, someone—perhaps he himself was the one responsible—picked up the wrong hat. Under the French name of your hat shop, Capharnaüm, Karlova Street, these words were written in gold on the white silk lining of the hat:
But no one in the shop knew this Athanasius Pernath, and you observed that the gentleman with someone else’s hat is becoming increasingly agitated and moving abruptly, like an automaton. More tics? As if in a daze, he heads toward the street, and just as he crosses the threshold he falls to the ground in violent convulsions. Don’t let him bite his tongue! exclaims the old man with the long white beard who kneels down with you beside the convulsing gentleman, who is foaming at the mouth. When you attempted to put your batiste handkerchief between his teeth, you removed a piece of paper from his mouth. The old man kneeling beside you holds it up to the light and unfolds it. A blank sheet? Saliva or time have erased the writing, but you believe you can still detect traces or traits of an aleph. Truth or death, murmurs the old man with the long beard, still examining the paper, and then you both realize that you are kneeling before a heap of dust and rotting rags which in just a few moments a gust of wind will blow toward the Old-New Synagogue. But not everyone who comes to Capharnaüm vanishes without a trace. In the same Annus Mirabilis, and in the same hat shop in Prague, Gregor, a timid commercial traveler, will begin to court you, a task you make easier for him with your innate coquettishness. In reality you will shorten the courtship in order to free him from an oppressive family that also takes most of his salary. In the end, not without tenacity and cunning, you will manage to overcome the resistance of his parents, Herr and Frau Samsa, and his sister, Greta, who aspires to be a violinist. When you announced that you were marrying, Frau Samsa (what’s in a name?) had an attack of asthma, Herr Samsa an attack of fury, and Greta an attack of hysteria. But you withstood their attacks bravely, standing firm beside Gregor, until they surrendered to your legitimate desires. Poor Gregor’s loneliness came to an end, and you will make him supremely happy in matrimony despite the old, dreadful nightmares that still awaken him from time to time, though he is now safe in your arms, as he was yesterday morning when he woke from a disturbing dream in which he believed he was lying in bed, transformed into an insect monster. A kind of beetle, he says, or perhaps a cockroach, you say to yourself in German and in French, remembering how, on certain afternoons, the hats on the shelves in your somber hat shop (Käfer Nahum ou Cafard Nahum?) turned into monstrous insects. And, after all, didn’t poor Gregor’s mushroom-shaped bowler resemble an enormous beetle ready to run up the wall? But, deriving strength from weakness, you overcome those visions and will make all traces of poor Gregor’s insectuous nightmare disappear, tickling his ribs and calling him, over and over again, my bolero beetle, my beetle bolero, as he writhes and turns in your pincers.
Julián Ríos was born in Galicia, Spain. He attended university in Madrid and has lived in London, Berlin, Strasbourg, and Paris. He is on the editorial boards of a number of magazines, contributes to journals in various countries, and has edited several fiction and essay series. His books include Larva, Loves that Bind, Poundemonium, and Monstruary.