Book review: The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain

You have to take your hat off to anyone who can conjure up a clever and refreshingly original story out of... a hat!

By Pam Norfolk
Thursday, 25th April 2013, 10:00 am
The President's Hat
The President's Hat

Granted this is not just any hat – it’s a rather stylish, black felt Homburg owned by former French President François Mitterrand – and the author has the advantage of the equivalent of a Masters degree in Gallic charm.

The President’s Hat has already won a much coveted French literary prize and its warm and whimsical foray (via a very special fedora) into the social and cultural heart of the 1980s is set to blow away English readers like a cap in the wind.

If the plot so far is sounding bizarrely Gallic, fear not, because Antoine Laurain’s brilliantly entertaining book is more witty fable than serious novel – a richly painted portrait of society before the days of the internet, and an imaginative exploration of how our destiny can hang on single decisions.

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In November 1986, five years into François Mitterrand’s 16-year reign as President, accountant Daniel Mercier is enjoying a ‘bachelor’ dinner at an elegant Parisian brasserie while his wife and son are away when Mitterrand and two colleagues sit down to eat at the table next to him.

Daniel’s thrill at being in such close proximity to the most powerful man in the land persists even after the presidential party has gone.

It could all have been so different – he could have decided to go home and make his own supper, he might have dined elsewhere or there might not have been a free table for him. ‘The important events in our lives are always the result of a sequence of tiny details,’ he concludes.

And it’s at that moment he discovers that Mitterrand’s black felt hat has been left behind. After a few moments’ soul-searching, Daniel decides to keep the hat as a souvenir of an extraordinary evening. It’s a perfect fit, and as he leaves the restaurant Daniel begins to feel somehow... different.

As the hat travels – by design or accident – from Daniel to Fanny Marquant, a young, would-be author who is trapped in an affair with a married man, to retired perfumer Pierre Aslan struggling to recapture his withered creativity and art collector Bernard Lavallière whose life has lost its truth and purpose, it changes the fortunes of everyone who possesses it.

Until, in a brilliant twist of fate, we meet up again with the President himself...

A quirky and beautifully offbeat piece of contemporary European literature, The President’s Hat appears at first glance to be as light as air but within its 200 pages is a world of clever, colourful storytelling and deep layers of subtle meaning.

In true French style, this is an enchanting, irresistible story which flows quickly and effortlessly from one vivid character to the next, capturing their essence in a minimum of words and with a vitality that never ceases to surprise and delight.

Like Cinderella’s glass slipper or Aladdin’s lamp, Mitterrand’s hat is a talisman which makes it wearers’ dreams comes true... the mundane becomes magical, a simple impulse becomes an act of life-changing importance.

Nostalgic, affectionate, funny and wise, The President’s Hat should be read, enjoyed and handed on like a relay baton... or a charismatic black hat.

(Gallic Books, paperback, £8.99)