The President’s Hat is a charming little novel that really cheered me up on a dreary afternoon, and I am glad Gallic Books sent it to me. Set in 1986, the novel tells the story of a hat that belongs to French President Francois Mitterand; Daniel is sitting in a Paris bistro when the President comes in to have dinner with some colleagues. Amazed and overwhelmed by the man dining next to him, Daniel stays as long as the President, wishing he could join his table. After the President leaves, Daniel realises that he has left his hat behind.
He picks up the black felt hat, unable to believe that this is that hat of the First Frenchman. Drawn to it and unwilling to lose the feeling of excitement the evening has brought him, Daniel impetuously takes the hat. And, for reasons unknown, his whole life seems to change. He gains unprecedented confidence at work and astounds his colleagues, earning a promotion. As he relocates with his family for his new job, Daniel forgets the hat on a train outside Paris. And so begins the journey of a simple black hat belonging to President Mitterand. It travels around France and even to Venice, each of its owners completely unaware of its owner and how it came to them, but each knowing (except one!) that it makes them feel strangely different and seems to have a magical effect on their lives, changing them forever.
I really liked The President’s Hat and read it in one sitting, and was buoyed up afterwards. With each character, different philosophical and political issues are discussed – Daniel is given a chance he never imagined and dreams of greater happiness; Fanny also searches for happiness in love and business; Pierre considers his past success and current depression and disillusionment; and Bernard reconsiders his entire political belief system and changes almost everything in his life. There is also plenty of discussion of the randomness of our lives and the multiple possible routes that our lives can take, and how apparently small events can make big differences. The unknown nature of the future and the possibility of change are central themes to this novel, as well as the importance of taking chances and going with your heart.
There is also the question of the power of power itself – does the power of the President transfer to each wearer of his hat? Does association with power make us feel more powerful, more in control of our own lives? This book certainly suggests that this is true. Mitterand was an extremely influential and often divisive figure in French and European politics, and one wonders why Laurain chose him as the owner of the hat. Mitterand as hat-owner places the story in the 1980s, and this brings up issues of wealth and economic climate, and its effect on people’s lives. In this sweet little book Laurain manages to sneak in some much more complex issues.
The style is quite light and flows nicely, creating a whimsical and very enjoyable atmosphere. Interestingly three different translators were used – one for Daniel, one for Fanny and Bernard, and one for Pierre. There are no stark differences between the styles of the three translators (or at least none obvious enough for me to pick up on), but I like the idea of using different translators for different characters. Experienced translators will hopefully appreciate the different nuances of each section, and it gives the characters more depth.
This is a great little book that I really recommend – get it!