*I received this book from the publishers as a review copy*
I think it is actually the first proper review copy I have received directly from a publisher, via twitter. I think this was due to my review of The Confidant (also published by Gallic Books) which I read in September last year and thoroughly enjoyed. I was therefore more than happy to read this book – I’ve mentioned before that I like to read translated fiction and this certainly fit the bill. The President’s Hat (first published in France as Le Chapeau de Mitterrand) by Antoine Laurain was translated by Gallic Books – there are several people credited at the end for ‘voicing’ certain characters. I’m not sure exactly what this means but I’m guessing that there were several people involved in its translation, perhaps translating the account of different characters to give them distinctive voices. If this is the case, then it’s certainly an interesting approach to translation.
Set in 1980’s Paris, Daniel Mercier decides to treat himself to dinner out whilst his wife and son are away visiting family, and finds himself sitting in a brasserie next to none other than François Mitterrand, then president of France. On leaving the restaurant, the President forgets to pick up his hat, and in a moment of whimsy, Daniel picks it up and takes it away with him. He is very excited by the fact that he now has Mitterrand’s hat and is beside himself when he leaves it behind on a train journey. The hat is passed on to a young woman named Fanny who is on the way to meet her lover, whom she meets once a month as they embark upon a love affair that she feels is going nowhere. Next up is perfumier ‘the nose’ Pierre Aslan, who has spent many years living a numb existence, having lost his talent and inspiration for creating new scents. After another mix-up at the same brasserie visited by Daniel and Mitterrand, the hat falls on the head of Bernard – a man who suddenly realises his life is slipping away from him and going in a different direction than he would like, inadvertently shrugging off his right-wing acquaintances by asking that guests pronounce Mitterrand’s name correctly out of a show of respect for the President.
This novel is a really charming account of a moment of fate in four people’s lives, the discovery of the hat, a magical object that when it is gifted into someone’s care, gives them a sense of empowerment and confidence and each person is left touched and positively influenced by wearing it. Just as Daniel thinks to himself “Wearing a hat gives you a feeling of authority over someone who isn’t” after having the confidence to speak up in an important meeting, each person feels strengthened by wearing it, and there are some lovely echoes throughout each account, of them looking at the hat, and the food that they eat in the brasserie described in the same way, suggesting that as destiny has been kind to the previous custodian of the hat, so will it be for the next. I enjoyed the story about Pierre Aslan the best, there was something a lot more magical about the effect it had on him and I loved the descriptions of the smells of the hat, adding another dimension to the tale that really brought it to life for me:
“The three smells were mingling and complementing each other in the heat. The perfect fusion, the ideal marriage. Pierre held his breath, then brought his face close to the hat. Time stood still […] The walls of the apartment seemed to disappear, then the paintings, the carpet, the television, the floorboards, the building, the block of houses, the quartier, the cars, the people, the pavements, the city and even the snow. Everything gone. There was nothing anymore. No 1986, no hours, no minutes.”
I was a little disappointed that the people who had been temporary custodians of the hat ended up communicating, by letter, as I quite liked the randomness of it all, the chance link between them and the way in which they may never know the true story of the hat, where it had come from and where it ended up. It seemed more magical that way. I did enjoy the epilogue at the end which puts a mischievous spin on all that has gone before and leaves you wondering about the hat and the power of the man who wore it.
Overall I thought this book was very enjoyable, charming and magical in places. It transports you to Paris in the 1980s and brings sights and tastes and smells to life. In addition to this I thought the design of the book was lovely, its thick textured cover and crisp pages, as well as the perforated bookmark on a flap on the back cover all make this a lovely little physical object, and one which I intend to pass on and share like Mitterrand’s hat!