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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

The President's Hat

by
Antoine Laurain


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The President's Hat



Title: The President's Hat
Author: Antoine Laurain
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 200 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The President's Hat - US
The President's Hat - UK
The President's Hat - Canada
Le chapeau de Mitterrand - Canada
The President's Hat - India
Le chapeau de Mitterrand - France
Il cappello di Mitterand - Italia
  • French title: Le chapeau de Mitterrand
  • The English translation is credited as 'Translated from the French by Gallic Books'; the three translators -- Jane Aitken, Emily Boyce, and Louise Rogers Lalaurie -- mentioned only at the end as having "voiced" the various characters

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Our Assessment:

B : genial little tale(s), though a bit simple in its nostalgia

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Figaro . 4/4/2012 Sebastien Lapaque
The Guardian . 19/3/2013 Nicholas Lezard


  From the Reviews:
  • "On pense souvent à Marcel Aymé en lisant ces pages qui sont l'occasion d'une jolie promenade au cœur des années 1980. Ce n'est pas le moindre des compliments." - Sebastien Lapaque, Le Figaro

  • "I think Laurain is being a little slyer, purposefully less exuberant than Aymé. Is this, or is this not, an allegory of power ? I like the way we are invited to reply both "yes" and "no" to this question. (...) (I)t teeters pleasantly on the edge of Gallic whimsy." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The President's Hat is set in the France of the mid-1980s, an age of Minitel (before the spread of the internet), Walkmans (before MP3 players), and strict class and political divides. This is a nostalgic tale, and, as so often, nostalgia makes for a rose-colored perspective, the unlikely idealized figure here French president of the day, François Mitterrand. It is the president who sets the action into motion: he forgets his hat -- marked with his initials -- in a restaurant, and The President's Hat describes how it comes, in turn, into the hands of a handful of other characters -- and, as if by magic (or Mitterand's gentle, powerful spirit ...), empowers them to transform their lives.
       There's Daniel Mercier, an executive at SOGETEC, who finally speaks his mind. There's Fanny Marquant, a secretary in a dead-end relationship, but also a budding writer, who gets out of her rut. There's Pierre Aslan, inventor of some of the world's finest perfumes, but uninspired for years now, who suddenly is on the scent again. And there's Bernard Lavallière, who finally recognizes what a "conventional bourgeois" he is and turns a new leaf (which also includes acquiring some Jean-Michel Basquiat paintings, before he became a star).
       Laurain presents the story quite charmingly, including how he bridges one fate and the next, as the hat is sometimes voluntarily given up, and at other points lost. Daniel, in particular, is eager to reclaim it once it's out of his hands, and he hunts it down over the course of the novel, a nice additional unifying thread -- and one that, like much of the story, is amusingly presented.
       The magical properties of the hat, on the other hand, are a bit too good to be true, the transformations very abrupt. Laurain gets away with it, for the most part, because of the genial stories he tells. That everything works out so very nicely, that everyone -- the (temporary) hat owners as well as those around them -- get what they deserve (including a good comeuppance for some) is a bit too simple -- but it all has its charm.
       The political message is a bit more confusing, the story suggesting as it does that Mitterand was a man of particular ability, with a good head on his shoulders -- a leader of the kind that's needed but not to be found in these days of Chirac, Sarkozy, and, presumably, now Hollande. Bourgeois, staid conservatism is frowned upon, a more free-spirited individualism the ideal. And, yes:

     François Mitterrand knew how to make his mark, earning his place in the history books as well as on the world stage. Sticking a glass pyramid in front of the Louvre, striped columns outside the Palais-Royal and a modern archway in line with the Arc de Triomphe smacked of an utterly anti-conservative, iconoclastic mentality -- verging on the punk.
       Okay, anyone who thinks that Mitterand's actions 'verged on the punk' obviously has (or at least presents) only the most superficial notion of radicalism. (Oddly, Mitterand juggling a 'second family' (a mistress and illegitimate daughter) in secret, isn't something Laurain plays up -- that sort of anti-conventionality apparently not quite fitting with the statement he wants to make.)
       Equally troubling is the glorification of the idea of 'making a mark' -- in an ostentatious manner no less. The achievements that (are meant to) impress are enormous or unusual structures -- not quite temples or statues, but serving similar purposes -- and it is this that apparently gives Mitterand: "his place in the history books as well as on the world stage". Social or economic achievements -- the actual advancement of the nation and its citizens, something one might think a politician should occupy himself with -- don't rate a mention. To think big (but entirely superficial and symbolic) -- in the form of public structures, erected at taxpayer expense -- is to think bold by Laurain's twisted logic.
       Are the French really so hidebound that one has to present these 'marks' -- admittedly 'controversial' in that day -- as so radical and so significant even now, a quarter of a century later ? Especially as Mitterand's magical hat, or wand, or whatever else he might have had up his sleeve, also set the stage for much of the social, economic, and racial turmoil France has experienced in the past twenty-five years -- though you'd never know it from his happy-go-lucky hat-finders, each of whom readily makes the leap forward to being a better and more successful person with barely any trouble. Laurain imagines a better world through no effort (just wear the hat, and embrace the Mitterand-spirit); admire a vision that is right in front of your eyes (grand structures, in modern styles) -- but never mind about actual political vision, for society and the everyday life of French citizens.
       A nice touch to the novel is an unexpected Epilogue, in which Mitterand resurfaces. It presents the president as a benevolent figure, but also as an all-powerful one, an abuser of state power and a puppet-master. In light of recent revelations of the state spying on its citizens in the United States and elsewhere the reach Mitterand shows here is chilling in its prescience; Mitterand is presented as a 'good guy' -- indeed, essentially everybody in this book acts with surprising decency --, but the possibilities for abuse are hard to overlook.
       The President's Hat is an agreeable read -- it's good fun, and quite well presented, with Laurain handling the unusual (and hard-to-believe) premise well. The message it sends, on the other hand, is beyond dubious.

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 August 2013

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Links:

The President's Hat: Reviews: Antoine Laurain: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Antoine Laurain is a French author.

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© 2013 the complete review

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