The President’s Hat, by Antoine Laurain

Review published on June 4, 2013. Reviewed by Kirsty Hewitt

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The President’s Hat begins in France in 1986, when Francois Mitterrand is five years into his role as President of the state. The novel has been heralded as a ‘wonderfully witty fable and rich portrait of political and cultural life during the Mitterrand years’.

At its beginning, a company accountant named Daniel Mercier finds himself dining alone in a Paris brasserie whilst his wife and son are away. In this setting, we learn quite a lot about Daniel – for example, ‘The prices were much higher than he had imagined, but he decided not to worry about that’ and ‘He was not one of those wine buffs who cam distinguish every last nuance of flavour in a fine cru and discourse on it at length, in sophisticated terms’. Whilst eating this expensive meal, Francois Mitterrand walks into the restaurant and takes the table beside Daniel’s: ‘He could have put out a hand and touched Francois Mitterrand… Even if he had to stay until closing time, he would not get up from his seat on the banquette before the President left… In his mind, Daniel was already rehearsing the words he would use in decades to come’.

Mitterrand leaves the brasserie, but he forgets to take his distinctive black felt hat with him. Daniel quickly acquires it, taking it back to his apartment. When he later tells his wife of how he came to acquire the President’s hat, she ‘had stared at him again, her head on one side, with that little frown she always wore when she was trying to work out if he was having her on or not… the frown that was the reason, amongst others, that he had fallen in love with her’. The hat begins to change Daniel as soon as he puts it on: ‘He felt as if his brain was bathed in a refreshing dose of sparkling aspirin. Bubbles of oxygen were fizzing through zones that had slumbered for too long’. The once quiet Daniel becomes more outspoken and confident at work, filling his colleagues with awe. He is suddenly ‘capable of defending their interests better than the most radical union representative’.

The hat is used as a clever device to tie together the lives of four disparate protagonists. Throughout the novel, circumstances cause the hat to be passed on to different people who are in need of its ‘powers’, so to speak. The second character whom we meet is a young woman named Fanny Marquant, who has ‘been having an affair with Edouard Lanier for two years, five months and two weeks now’. When she acquires the hat, Laurain explains the way in which ‘In the space of a few moments, the felt hat had emerged as the source of strength she had waited so long for’. The hat is then passed to Pierre Aslan, ‘the nose’, a rather depressed perfumer in need of some inspiration.

The novel has been geographically and historically grounded, and Laurain has captured Paris rather well: ‘the early-winter cold was already gripping the city, muffling its sounds and the noise of the passing traffic’. Laurain has used a third person perspective throughout, but he has employed the use of several different literary techniques along the way to capture what each of his characters is feeling. Dialogue and the instances of correspondence throughout are the strongest instances of these.

The President’s Hat is rather an easy read, and it is easily to become absorbed in the story from its earliest chapters. It is well written and has been wonderfully translated. Throughout the clever plot, we spend just as much time as feels necessary with each of the protagonists before the hat moves on. The President’s Hat is a great and rather original novel, which is sure to appeal to as diverse an audience as the recipients of the hat.

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