08 April 2014

Book Review: The President's Hat by Antoine Laurain


A fellow bookseller just created a new section in our bookstore called Read the World, featuring fiction, poetry, and essays translated into English.  He's a big proponent of translation and is in fact helping to put together a symposium on the importance and the future of translation.  Sadly, browsing the new section in my bookstore made me realize that I don't read many books that were not originally written in English.  Now, a large part of this is not so much my fault as it is the nature of the American publishing industry.  According to a 2007 study done by the University of Rochester, a scant 3% of the books published in the US are in translation. A quick survey of my Goodreads stats shows that I've read three books in translation over the last twelve months, and now that I'm aware of the situation, I'm going to see what happens when I actively seek out works in translation to read this year.  Thank goodness for Europa Editions and other small publishers who make world literature available to those who read only English!

One that I have recently read is called The President's Hat by Antoine Laurain, which I picked up not because it was originally written in French, but because it sounded fun and had actually been selling fairly well in the store.  Lucky for me, it turned out to a delightful little novel. It's set in France in the 1980s when Francois Mitterand was the president of France, and it is basically the story of what happens when you believe than an object can empower you to take control of your own life.

It opens with an accountant named Daniel, who decides to treat himself to a solo dinner at a fancy brasserie one night when his family is out of town.  Not long after he's ordered, President Francois Mitterand sits down with a small party at the table next to him. The President accidentally leaves his hat behind on the banquette between himself and Daniel, so Daniel surreptitiously picks it up and leaves with it, thinking of it as an accidental souvenir of the night he sat next to the President.  But lo and behold, after he starts wearing the hat, Daniel begins acting a bit differently at home and at work.  He takes charge during a business meeting, he gets a promotion, he acts more confidently and with authority--that sort of thing.  He's just beginning to attribute his new success to the President's hat when he accidentally leaves it behind on the train...

...Enter a young woman named Fanny, who notices an abandoned hat on the luggage rack of her train. It's clearly going to be next to impossible to find the owner, so she dons that hat herself, little knowing what is in store for her.  Now she is feeling empowered and emboldened in new ways.  Fanny finds a way to break off an unproductive affair with her married love, and then the short story she submits to a national contest wins the grand prize. Now she in turn leaves the hat on a park bench, where it gets picked up by Pierre, a once-mighty perfumeur who has fallen on hard times...

...You can guess what happens when the perfumeur puts on the President's hat, n'est-ce pas?

We see various people whose lives are changed by this presidential hat, and the big question is, does the power lie within the hat, or does it simply awaken the power in each individual who wears it?  I ended up thinking of Mitterand's hat as a cross between a benevolent version of Tolkien's One Ring and Mary Poppins, transferring its attachment from one owner to the next, always going where it happens to be needed.

For a small novel (it barely reaches 200 pages), it really covers a lot of territory both large (love, life, work, politics) and small (random chances can change your life, and so can accessorizing). Though I read it in two short sittings, the quiet contentment that pervades these pages stayed with me for days--a kind of magic all its own.  I recommend it to just about any reader, but especially if you're looking for a book that is life-affirming without being hokey, or gentle without being dull. The President's Hat got lot of raves in France and it won both the Prix Landerneau Decouvertes and the Prix Relay des Voyageurs in 2012.  Sadly, the translation is not attributed to any one person but to Gallic Books in general.

What about y'all?  Do you seek out works in translation to read? Have you read anything marvelous lately that was not in its original language?

NB: I read an uncorrected proof version of this book that I found in the ARC pile at my bookstore.  It is  published in the US by Gallic Books, which is distributed by Consortium.

11 comments:

  1. Thanks for this recommendation! It sounds like a lovely book, I look forward to reading it. I honestly can't remember the last translated book I've read, now that I think about it - maybe none since college!?

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  2. This sounds wonderful. I don't read much work in translation either, but it's something I would like to work on!

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    1. We can be mutually encouraging of this endeavor.

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  3. I've got this on my Kindle and your review has intrigued me!

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    1. I hope you'll post a review if you ever get around to reading it.

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  4. I like the sound of this book.
    My favourite author (at the moment) who does not write in the English language is Jostein Gaarder - a Norwegian. Her stories flow beautifully. My favourites are "The Orange Girl" which is a captivating story told in an original style and making one analyse the beauty of love and death and "Sophie's World" which is like philosophy for beginners but in a delightful story so that is in no way like a textbook.

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    1. Ummm, I'm embarassed to admit that though I've heard of Sophie's World, I didn't realize that (1) it was a book in translation, and (2) was written by a woman. I've heard wonderful things about it, though!

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  5. Ooh, this one sounds delightful!

    I do definitely make an attempt to seek out translated fiction. A lot of it ends up being Scandinavian fare simply because of my penchant for thrillers!

    Last year I signed on for a translation challenge and did manage to read 11/12 I believe (I didn't finish my October one!). The challenge didn't continue this year but I'm still making an effort to include translated stuff each month. So far this year I've read 5 I believe. My favorites have definitely been the two Engelsfors books by Sara Elfgren and Mats Strandberg. I've also read a few collections this year that had translated shorts.

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    1. Becky, I'm embarrassed again. I dn't know Sara Elfgren and Mats Strandberg. I'm clearly going to have to expand my books-in-translation horizons!

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  6. A bit late to the party, but the book looks awesome -- I'm intrigued. As for authors in translation, it's hard to go wrong with (the now late) Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, Jose Saramago, or Per Petterson. Haruki Murakami is an acquired taste, but entertaining, and Machado de Assis has a good, dry wit. I also really liked Pramoedya Ananta Toer's This Earth of Mankind in his Buru Quartet (the other three books -- not so much).
    If you want to expand your list of translated authors, the Nobel Prize list has some good options, with novelists such as Thomas Mann or Orhan Pamuk, or poets such as Rabindranath Tagore, Gabriela Mistral, or Pablo Neruda, all of whom I've enjoyed. Just some ideas from around the world.

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Please, sir, may I have some more? (Comments, that is!)