1st Books Library
ISBN 0-75961-9867
All the peaks are covered with snow–why is this one bare?" In Zen Buddhism, this illustrates a popular and a mysterious kind of riddle called koan, which cannot be comprehended by a logical thought. To understand a koan, one has to approach the ‘subject matter’ from a different viewpoint, focus and identify the crux, grasp the hidden meaning, follow sequentially and only then attempt an answer. But perceptions differ from one individual to another, making it impossible for a koan to have a fixed, ready-made solution. In a way, we can say that a koan remains a sweet mystery and must be so–for it is this air unpredictability that makes the form all the more curious and appealing.
         The Empty Café, an anthology of short stories by Michael Hoffman, is koan-ic in outlook. Some stories contain intricate settings, most offer interesting and obscure clues and none present a clear ending. Mr. Hoffman takes extraordinary care to hide details from the reader. In "Haruki," a young girl charges an innocent and respectable professor, Jonathan Hardy, with assault and then forgets the incident. Jonathan, however, carries the accusations in his heart and watches his innocence drift away. In "Solitude," a long short story, Solomon Rose accomplishes his 'task' by murdering a person after fifteen years. In "Beauty," an exquisite and memorable short work that was my favorite of the collection, Barry Dorn involves himself in a lengthy investigation to solve the slight mystery of why his fiancée screamed in a restaurant.
         What motive could lay behind the slaughter of a harmless stranger? Why should an honest man suspect his wife of adultery after fifteen years of satisfactory married life? The Empty Café offers unimaginable keys to these and other questions. A cursory reading leads suggests that most of the stories hang in the air, and lack what fiction should never lack: an ending. Later, however, the reader realizes that the plots are constructed as puzzle pieces. Mr. Hoffman’s objective is to invite the participation of the readers, to encourage them to compile the scattered parts and uncover those that remain hidden on their own. It is precisely this aspect of self-discovery that gives a special individuality to this work.
         Each story is effortlessly narrated, though the evident simplicity of the storytelling belies hidden complexity. Mr. Hoffman takes up diverse themes and crafts his work intelligently. Some characters have stepped quietly out of the pages of Freud and Dostoyevsky; others may live next door.
         The author's style reminds one of a veteran painter’s brushstrokes: fascinating, simple, yet thoughtful. Mr. Hoffman’s café offers everything you should expect from an excellent collection of stories–everything, that is, except emptiness.