When President Mitterrand leaves his distinctive hat in an upmarket Parisian restaurant, the mesmerised diner at the next table cannot resist the temptation to steal it. In a “La Ronde” type occurence chance events, the hat falls into the possession of a sequence of very different characters: a line-toeing manager who is bullied by his boss, a would-be writer who has drifted into being the mistress of a man eternally promising to leave his wife, a famous creator of perfumes who has lost his capacity to recognise scents, let alone create a best-selling new one, and so on. Despite having so little in common, thanks to the hat, each experiences the same sudden burst of confidence and creative impetus to act differently which radically alters the course of their lives.
The end, although essentially predictable, has enough ingenious twists to leave the reader satisfied. Despite a loss of momentum at times, as if it could just go on adding temporary owners of the hat until the author tires of the device, the plot is saved by the sheer pleasure of reading his polished, gently ironic prose. Even if one dislikes oysters, his description of eating one is so vivid that one can see and taste it. He also introduced me to some interesting buildings which can be looked up online, such as the courtyard of the Palais Royal in Paris with its “Colonnes de Buren”, the controversial installation of black-and white striped, columns resembling liquorice allsorts. Another example is the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo with its stiking multi-arched spiral staircase, which sounds worth visiting on a trip to Venice.
Set in the 1980s, before the world of mobile phones, the internet and social media, the novel risks being dated by the reference to celebrities now long gone or forgotten, which may limit its appeal to younger readers. The cultural references sometimes feel a little contrived as if culled from a checklist of items researched to give the story an authentic setting. Antoine Laurain has said that he avoids reading modern novels, being depressed by their focus on violence and suffering. This novel, which flits like a butterfly over deep The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain and real problems, dripping nostalgia for a more innocent, less fraught era which never quite existed, can be enjoyed as an ingenious, entertaining piece of escapism from grim reality.
The final sentence may provide the key to the novel, or the idea that inspired it, namely François Mitterrand’s intriguing conclusion of his last address to the public: “Je crois aux forces de l’esprit et the ne vous quitterai pas”. C’est-à-dire: I believe in the strength of the spirit, and will never leave you”