Sunday, 27 November 2016

Book of the Month: The President's Hat (Antoine Laurain)

The president, about whose hat is Antoine Laurain’s novel, is Francoise Mitterrand, France’s first socialist president. I had always thought that Mitterrand had a striking nose, but obviously he had an even more interesting hat. What is interesting about the hat? The hat has magical properties: it gives the wearer the confidence to do and say things they always wanted to do but lacked the courage. Now Mitterrand, in real life, was a charismatic and astute politician renowned, respected (and in some quarters) despised for his political manoeuvres. Whether Mitterrand’s personal qualities are absorbed, as it were, by his hat, which, when it gets on the heads of others, passes them on to its wearers; or whether the hat has magical qualities the first beneficiary of which is Francoise Mitterrand, and, when he loses the hat, others, is something about which one could speculate if one were so inclined (I am not).

There are a number of individuals who come into possession of Mitterrand’s hat, in the novel. The first one, who actually steals the hat, is an accountant called Daniel Mercier. Daniel finds himself next to Mitterrand’s table, when he is dining in a posh brasserie. While enjoying a sea-food platter and a bottle of pouilly Fuisee, which would put the likes of me in mind of a second mortgage (how much do the accountants in France earn?) Daniel hears snippets of conversation arising from the next table (“As I was telling Helmut Kohl last week . . .”), which leaves him quivering like a teenage girl who has been asked backstage after the concert by her favourite pop-star. When Mitterrand’s party leaves the table Daniel notices that the president has left behind his hat. He has to have the hat. Daniel walks towards the exit, non-chalantly, picking the hat (non-chalantly) on his way, and leaves the hotel (non-chalantly). Just like the teenage fan of the pop-star, as she makes her way towards the backstage, Daniel does not know what is in store for him. As it turns out, what is in store for Daniel is something unexpected (like the teenage fan) and pleasant (probably unlike the teenage fan). Next day, in a departmental meeting, Daniel finds the courage to stand up to his boss, dazzling, in the process, the company’s boss (and surprising himself) with his sharp ratiocinating, which, until then, he is unaware he possessed the ability of. Daniel gets the promotion, which means he has to move to another city. He is however distraught when he realises, upon reaching the city that he has forgotten the hat on the train. (Daniel, as the modern-day psychologists might put it, has an external, rather than internal, locus of control: he is unwilling to give himself any credit for his performance in the meeting; it’s all because of the hat). The hat Daniel has left on the train is picked up by a young woman named Fanny Marquant, who fancies herself as a writer. Fanny is also having an affair with a married man for two years, meeting him in seedy hotels in Paris, not having the courage to end the affair even though she knows fully well that the man has no intention of leaving his life and is only interested in her . . . er, fanny; she will always be the woman on the side. You don’t need me to tell you that the hat gives Fanny the courage to tell the philanderer to find sex elsewhere, literally and figuratively. You will have probably guessed what happens next. No, it is not what I think you are thinking. Fanny does not mislay the hat. She deliberately gives it up having made the moral discovery that it is wrong to hold on to something which does not belong to you. So Fanny puts the hat on a bench in a public park in Paris and settles on the opposite bench to see who picks it. As it happens the hat is picked up by an old tosser named Pierre Aslan, who used to be a famous perfumer who has been struggling to unplug a creative block worse than my blocked toilet, and living in the shaky hope that paying hundreds of pounds to a psychoanalyst (so another tosser) would help him to find some purpose to his life. It is not working. The psychoanalyst does not utter a word (except to tell when the session is over) while the perfumer free-associates. All that is about to end, though, I am happy to inform you. Aslan has come into possession of Mitterrand’s hat. Nothing, now, can possibly go wrong. Inspiration strikes Aslan faster than a lorry running into stationary traffic as the driver scrolls music channels on his mobile, and the perfumer is back in business. Would the perfumer manage to hold on to Mitterrand’s hat? Would Sun rise in the West? No, and no. Aslan, too, loses the hat, like its original owner, in a posh restaurant, and it goes into the hands, rather on the head, of a posh tosser named Bernard Lavalliere. Lavalliere’s social milieu consists of similar, dead-beat, wine-guzzling bourgeois tossers and layabouts, who are readers of French version of Daily Mail (so, non-believers in prisoners’ rehabilitation, agitators for the bringing back of the death penalty, and, in general, holders of political views to the right of Genghis Khan). Lavalliere, the old tosser, has been comfortable in the company of these other tossers all these years like a pig rolling in mud. But no longer. Mitterrand’s hat is on his head and the man, much to the disgust of his awful wife, is ready to lead the Labour Party (in case Jeremy Corbyn decides that he is required in Cuba now that Castro is dead). He even invests money in buying the paintings of the then-unknown (and soon to be dead) Haitian artist called Jean-Michel Basquiat. Then Lavalliere loses the hat. The difference this time is that he neither mislays the hat nor does he deliberately give it up; the hat is snatched from his hand. Who is the hat-snatcher? Why Daniel Mercier, of course, the original hat-thief. If you are consumed with the burning desire to find out how Daniel tracks down the rich tosser and what happens after, you will have to read this entertaining novel.

The President’s Hat is the literary equivalent of a relay race, where the hat, like a baton, passes from one character to another, bringing sunshine and good fortunes to the lives of its wearers. The transformation of each wearer into someone they either were not until then, or struggling to be, is almost magical. Whether the president’s hat has magical properties (Daniel Mercier, the first wearer, certainly thinks so) or whether the association with power makes you feel powerful is left to reader’s imagination (if you, like me, are lacking in imagination, you’d tend to follow the straightforward explanation: the hat has magical properties; and would not bother to ferret out an allegory). Similarly, if you are familiar with the French politics of the 1980s and what Mitterrand, Franc’s first socialist president, sought to change it, you might be inclined to see subtle political message.

The President’s Hat is a delightful, quirky novel, which zips along at an agreeable pace. The best thing about it is that it ends just when it has to (with a nice epilogue). You can stretch a conceit only so much.