Friday, December 11, 2015

The President’s Hat, by Antoine Laurain (2012)

Those wanting a perfect Christmas book without wanting a book about Christmas could do no better than this superb fable for adults, The President’s Hat, by Antoine Laurain (born 1970).
An unbeatable feat of Gallic whimsy, The President’s Hat is the story of Daniel Mercier, a nice middle-class man who decides to eat alone at a bistro when his wife is out of town.  Who should happen to be at a neighboring table, but the President of the Republic himself, Francois Mitterrand.  At first delighted to be so close to the presidential presence, Mercier is even more thrilled to see that the Great Man has left behind his hat.
With a little subterfuge, Mercier is able to get Metterrand’s hat and the next thing you know … his life has changed completely.  He wears clothes with more dash, is more dynamic at the office, is finally offered that promotion he wanted so much, and, he and is family are finally able to move to a better home.
Things look great … until Mercier loses the hat himself!  We then follow the enchanted chapeau from head-to-head in Paris, from a woman struggling to emerge from beneath the thumb of her older and more domineering lover, to a disaffected creator of perfumes, and, perhaps, back to Mercier once again.  Add to that the French Secret Service hot on the trail, and you have a delicious confection indeed.
Let me be upfront about this right now:  if you read Laurain’s book, you will feel good.  This is a fairy tale for adults; a book of almost infinite good humor and high spirits, and one that will definitely make you smile indiscriminately.
Those looking for a moral (and there are always those) will have much to sift through: are our heroes suddenly rejuvenated in their careers and personal lives because of new-found self-confidence, or, perhaps, is there a subtle alchemy as yet undiscovered in inanimate things.  (One immediately thinks of Charles Dickens, an animist of the first water, who clearly thought that tables, doorknockers, fireplaces and clocks had souls.)  It also tussles with such thorny issues as fate, romantic love, and the fundamental necessity of personal fulfillment.
This brief book (barely 200 pages) is incredibly rich, and not to be missed.  I felt a queer sense of contentment, both while reading and immediately after.  If you are the sort of reader who loves literature, comfort, simple and droll humanity, and books that are life-affirming without being silly, then The President’s Hat is for you.  It won rave reviews in its native France, and has been equally well-received in the US.  Ask your bookseller for a copy – it makes a perfect gift (even to one’s self).
As with many books these days, it ends with some fairly useless Reading Group Questions and an Interview with the Author.  Though these are usually the only disposable parts of any new book, the President’s Hat does provide an author’s quote that is worth sharing here for anyone considering this book.  When asked if he (Laurain) believed in destiny or magic, the author replied:  Certainly the former and quite possibly the latter.  I’m going to take the liberty of quoting Vladimir Nabokov, whose words on the subject far exceed anything I might have to say.  It comes from one of his lectures on literature given in the USA: “The truth is that great novels are great fairy tales … literature was born on the day when a boy came crying ‘wolf, wolf’ and there was no wolf behind him."

A children’s book for adults, The President’s Hat comes highly recommended.

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