Set in France during the mid-1980s, ‘The President’s Hat’ by Antoine Laurain tells the story of, well, François Mitterrand’s black felt hat. After the French president accidentally leaves it behind in a brasserie, Daniel Mercier takes the hat on impulse and finds that wearing it brings him a great amount of luck. However, it soon ends up in the hands of a range of other characters… and so begins the eventful journey of the president’s hat which somehow changes the lives of all those who briefly possess it.
I really enjoyed The Dinner by Herman Koch earlier this year which I thought was a brilliant example of slightly off-beat modern European literature. ‘The President’s Hat’ is similarly quirky and is also a fairly light and breezy read which can easily be read in one sitting. It is not just a silly story about a magical hat though – it is more of a satirical fable which has a slightly deeper message about how we value such objects and also explores the general atmosphere of uncertainty pervading France in the 1980s.
Having lived in Paris for a year during my undergraduate studies, the references to modern French culture in the story amused me greatly. This is the France of Minitel, Clairefontaine stationery and Canal + rather than the clichéd, romantic descriptions of Paris in the springtime so often found in novels. You certainly don’t need to be an expert on France or its politics to enjoy the story though which moves along effortlessly thanks to an engaging set of characters and an excellent translation which doesn’t feel clunky to read.
Charmingly nostalgic but never saccharine, ‘The President’s Hat’ is a highly original and very humorous story which I would recommend to anyone whether they are a Francophile or not.
Many thanks to FMCM Associates for the review copy.