Last week our book club met to chat about The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain. This was my book suggestion. It is a charming fable about the power of a hat that takes the reader on a roller-coaster ride through French life in the Mitterrand years and it proved to be a popular choice with the group.
In November 1986 , 5 years into Francois Mitterrand’s 16 years reign as President of France , an ordinary accountant Daniel Mercier treats himself to a “bachelor evening” while his wife and son are away. Sitting in a restaurant indulging in oysters and a splendid bottle of Pouilly-Fuisse, Daniel can hardly believe his eyes when President Mitterrand and two of his associates sit down to eat at the table next to him.
After the presidential party leaves Daniel discovers that the President has left behind his black felt hat. Daniel perhaps emboldened by the wine he has drunk walks out of the restaurant wearing it. But this is no ordinary hat. Confidence that Daniel did not know he possessed soon comes out in unexpected ways. He criticises a superior at a meeting and gets promoted.
The hat is passed along by mishap and soon finds a new female owner, Fanny Marquant ,who is trapped in a long and unfulfilling love affair with a married man. When wearing the hat Fanny sees that being the other woman is not full of romance and secret meetings and she has the clarity to end her affair. She realises that the hat has given her this insight and that in turn she must pass the hat on to someone else.
The iconic item of headgear plays with the life of two further characters, a retired perfumer who rediscovers his genius and a ghastly right wing bore who suddenly becomes aware that all his friends are ghastly right wing bores, stops reading Le Figaro and starts reading Liberation. The hat changes the fortunes of all who possess it and eventually returns to its original owner in a unique way.
Can a hat change people’s destiny? Is this or is this not an allegory of power? While we wrestled with these questions we all agreed that we enjoyed the details of the book. Laurain captures each character quickly in a clever, colourful style with many subtle meanings. The short novel is shot through with a delicious sense of humour recreating vividly the everyday life of an era, being very much a hymn to la vie Parisienne in the 1980s.
That said the novel can simply be appreciated for its originality and fabulistic narrative. It acts as a reminder that many of life’s most important events can be the result of tiny details that shape our future in unexpected ways.