Confession: I am really terrible when it comes to picking out contemporary fiction to read. Generally speaking, it takes a specific recommendation from someone to provoke me into reading a book that I’m mostly unfamiliar with. Otherwise, a book’s journey onto my bookshelf (or, more realistically, onto my towering book stacks) is a lengthy one, typically requiring that I pass the book several times in book shops, watch it pop up in a variety of reviews, and, inevitably, finally give in when I find it in the Waterstones ‘3 for the price of 2’ sale. So, it is enormously impressive that ‘The President’s Hat’ has somehow managed to make it into my possession while only fulfilling one of my three criteria (hello Waterstones sale!).
Having no preconceptions of this book at all, my decision to purchase was based solely on two factors: 1. I am a big fan of classic French fiction and was excited by the chance to read something contemporary; and 2. The information on the back cover being the sole question, “Could a felt hat have the power to change lives?”(admittedly less impressive when I am trying to pose myself as having some sort of literary insight to offer). I would like to be able to say that the first factor was the biggest selling point for me, but that would be a lie. So with the promise of 200 pages about the life-changing powers of a French president’s hat, I decided to break my standard rules of book selection and step into a new era. Yes, it takes that little.
Am I glad that I violated my well-established principles for this book? Overall, yes I am. The book tells the tale of President Francois Mitterand’s black felt hat, picked up in a restaurant by the Parisian accountant Daniel Mercier. From there, the hat passes through the hands of three other individuals, changing the lives of each person in an empowering and peculiar way. Inspired by his courage to steal the President’s hat, Daniel Mercier stands up to his boss and receives a longed-for promotion. Fanny Marquant, coming into possession of the hat when it is left on a train by Daniel Mercier, is subsequently provoked into ending her affair with a married man. And, perhaps the most touching of the book’s brief trips into the lives of its characters, is the tale of Pierre Aslan – one-time creator of the world’s greatest perfumes but, having lost his creative instinct, consigned to a life of depression and fear. Picking the hat up from a park bench, Pierre Aslan gradually comes back to himself. The ultimate story of a life redeemed.
Superficially, one is led to the conclusion that this is a hat with the power to get people promotions, give them the courage to end doomed love affairs, and confess their liberal politics to a roomful of aristocracy (studying human rights and working in a stately home, I would very much appreciate a hat with this particular power). Taking this view, I think, rather misses the point of the book. Instead, I believe that this story merely serves to illustrate the delicate balance by which we live our lives – the fact that it takes something so seemingly insignificant, even an inanimate object, to change the course of things. I imagine that virtually every other review of this book will, at some point, use the word ‘charming’ to describe the narrative. And it absolutely is. In much the same way that the film ‘Amelie’ was also charming. But as with ‘Amelie’, there is so much more to the story being told here. Antoine Laurain dips into these characters with enviable skill. As a relatively short book, it says something of Laurain’s abilities as a writer that he is able to make the reader so invested in the lives of his characters within just a few short pages.
While I think that it is entirely possible that you could read ‘The President’s Hat’ as simply a short and easy read, giving some insight into French culture, and ultimately telling the tale of a hat with almost supernatural powers, there is more to this book than meets the eye. Read it not just as a charming story, but also with an awareness of what it says about the decisions we make, and the way that these decisions rely on consequence, coincidence, and a little bit of courage.
So while my decision to buy this book had nothing to do with a hat (in fact, my overly large head gives me a significant amount of difficulty when it comes to hats), I am absolutely glad that consequence and coincidence provoked this particular choice. And Laurain should be applauded for confirming that sometimes it is a very good idea to step outside of routine and comfort to make a change, however small.