The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain

71rGmzSt2tL President Francois Mitterrand’s hat is missing. It is Paris, November 1986. Accountant Daniel Mercer has – there’s no polite word for this – stolen it, after sitting next to Mitterrand in a swanky restaurant. ‘All brasseries have brilliant white tablecloths that hurt the eyes, like snow on the ski slopes.’ This one certainly does, the sort of place you can imagine one of Europe’s foremost heads of state sitting down to the seafood platter in a city which has never lacked confidence in its own supremacy. Daniel is surprised to have become a thief and becomes more resourceful than he can have ever imagined – not least when he loses the hat himself, as the novel becomes a sort of La Ronde involving posh headwear. An unhappy adulterer, a depressed perfumier, a stuffy aristo who suddenly tires of his trappings – all receive the Mitterrand hat treatment as, for one reason or another, they come into contact at various times withit. And treatment is a fair word, because it is as though the dark felt homburg is, through osmosis, imbuing the various wearers with some traits that its real owner – unapologetic, grand, left-wing, charming, contradictory, devious, rather magnificent – possesses. They all become more assertive, less afraid of failure…just better versions of themselves. It probably depends on your view of Mitterrand whether you see this as a good thing, of course. Antoine Laurain evokes the 1980s through sparing period detail: the novelty of CDs, VW Golfs, Minitel (a sort of French forerunner of the internet) and artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (who assumes great significance). Things are more or less wrapped up in an amusing coda, which follows an enigmatic meeting in Venice. The author is also a screenwriter, and The President’s Hat would make a lovely two-hour, one-off Sunday night comedy drama, just begging for the post-Antiques Roadshow slot. At one point in the narrative comes this homily: ‘Every hat-wearer’s life is measured in a succession of headgear that wears out, is mislaid and found or never seen again.’ That is tosh, of course. But, like the book itself, it is persuasive, charming tosh to which you’re happy to give the time of day. Le Chapeau de Mitterrand is a pleasing soufflé.

 

 

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