The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain

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The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain, published by Gallic Books in 2013. (Originally Le Chapeau de Mitterrand published by Flammarion in 2012)

When David Mercier, a mid-level accountant whose Parisian life has seemingly plateaued, decides to make the most of his wife and son’s trip to Brittany by treating himself to a bachelor, brasserie dinner of oysters, the only alterations he anticipates are those to his bank balance and his belt. But just as he has finished scouring the menu and handing in his order, in strolls le Président de la République François Mitterrand who takes his seat just beside Monsieur Mercier, leaving his aghast. After eating, when Monsieur Mitterrand forgets his hat, Mercier is left with the perfect opportunity to nab a memento from his new claim to fame, an opportunity he swiftly fulfils. But this black felt Homburg affects Mercier’s life in a wholly unexpected manner as it bestows upon its new owner a torrent of confidence, authority and fervour which sees him criticize a senior colleague during a meeting, leading to a promotion and a new life in Rouen.

 

However the hat becomes elusive as it makes a habit of escaping its owners.  The plot follows the meanderings of the Homburg as it tumbles from one owner to the next and witnesses the almost-magical influence the hat imposes on their lives of these Parisians. The setting is at the heart of the novel and the depictions of Parisian life are charming and almost caricature at times, sprinkled with a playful light humour. Holidays in Brittany, evening aperitifs, oysters squirming at the drops of fresh lemon juice, it is all so very French. And it is infective. You have to question your morals when you find Mercier driving home after washing down his oysters with a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé and, wrapped up in the novel’s lackadaisical realm, think that this is fine and dandy. But this is Paris in 1986, pre-internet, pre-mobile phones, where Parisian life streams simply along like the dreams of Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu and at times it reminded me of the Paris of Woody Allen’s Mightnight in Paris. The novel’s structure adds to this comfortable, pleasurable nostalgia as it fades masterfully in and out of each scene with great fluidity, giving the narrative a very cinematic feel. Hence many a critic’s desire to apply that beloved phrase, an ‘easy-read’, to The President’s Hat.

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 ‘A hymn to la vie parisienne‘ (The Guardian) 

 

At the mere mention of that phrase, many a literary-snob might upturn their nose and exclaim that this novel, alas!, is not for them. Often association with summer-time beach reads or novels which absorb you during a tedious train journey, the ‘easy-read’ is often assumed to be lacking a serious purpose beyond its desire to entertain. The President’s Hat, rather, springs a number of stimulating questions and themes. The way the hat ‘magically’ confers confidence and change in the lives of the novel’s characters has something thought-provoking to say about the psychological origins of self-confidence. Also, the figure of Mitterrand as a potent, influential figurehead who leaves his mark on the architectural landscape of Paris, on the political landscape France as a nation, as well as influencing those around him with his presence and his hat, forces readers to reflect on the nature of power, leadership and what that should be. Published en françaisby Flammarion on the eve of the inauguration of the current French president, Monsieur Hollande, The President’s Hat makes us wonder whether this narrative would have been possible or feasible had Hollande or Nicolas Sarkozy replaced Mitterrand in the role of influential head of state…

 

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François Mitterrand and the hero of Laurain’s novel, Mitterrand’s hat.

The President’s Hat is a novel which poses significant and relevant questions about modern life, modern leaders, and offers readers a nostalgia for the serenity of a perhaps outmoded way of life that many of us still (wrongly?) deem to be la vie française. And Laurain achieves this in a charming, agréable style which is light-hearted and very well-written. A word must also be said for the excellence of the translation by Gallic Books which is completely idiomatic, engrossing, and never reminds you that you are reading a text in translation. Which is no mean feat, so bravo! I will definitely be keeping an eye on their future publications, and you should too!

Central Park by Guillaume Musso

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Alice, a not-all-that-young French police officer, wakes to find herself handcuffed to a stranger in the middle of Central Park, New York. All that she can recall from the previous evening is knocking back cocktails… in Paris. But before you point out that this is just a French take on the ‘Hangover’, the aforementioned-and-attached-to-our-hero stranger awakes to introduce himself as Gabriel, an American Jazz musician who claims that just last night he was knocking down pints of Guinness while performing in Dublin. Pfft, likely story. Alice, with her keen police-heightened instincts, can smell liars a mile off. But then there is blood on her shirt – how did that get there? And there is a bullet missing from her gun – where has it gone? These and the other million unanswered questions that open the novel are (of course) resolved through the exploration of our protagonist’s history as a younger officer heavily involved in a series of linked murders and the repercussions of that case on her own physical, personal and psychological health. 

I thought Central Park was a decent enough thriller which probed at the reader’s curiosity in the opening chapters and then turning over each stone of the novel’s mystery with a few not-too-surprising twists on the way. It was, as we imagine was the author’s principal intention, entertaining and the narrative flowed well. Nonetheless this was my first Musso novel and I did note a number of frustrating elements that took the edge away from what is in principle an interesting, if unlikely, story. Firstly was how cheesy the novel is. From the supposedly-illuminating quotes which open each chapter, to the clichéd descriptions of landscapes, people, events, to the completely unnecessary, unwarranted, unwanted yet completely expected ending, there is little that is original in Musso’s writing. The story flows well but at the expense of the language which never forces the reader to think very much about the language used. Likewise I found the use of pathetic fallacy, which is constant, again to be unnecessary, clichéd, dated but it was something that I came to expect in the novel. The strongest section of the novel, I felt, was not to do with the suspense or the plot but the way Musso discusses the psychological effects of Alice’s trauma on her life and her thought processes as she faces up to it. Otherwise I thought Central Park to be a predictable, comfortable read which will entertain readers with its plot but certainly not with its literary prowess.

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Central Park is published by XO Editions and is available here. (en français!)

You might (or might not) also want to check out XO’s ‘trailer’ (is this a new thing? – I’ve never seen one before!) of Central Park below: