A Voltaire for the New Millenium

February 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

Title:  Cairo:  Memoir of a City Transformed by Ahdaf Soueif
Publisher:  Pantheon Books, New York (2014)

The questions that are being settled on the streets of Egypt are of concern to everyone. The paramount one is this: can a people’s revolution that is determinedly democratic, grassroots, inclusive, and peaceable succeed?

Cairo erupted during eighteen days between January 25th and February 11th, 2011.  It was one of the first in what became the string of global protests that were held in 2011 & early 2012.  That chain included the Tunisian “Jasmine” Revolution; America’s Occupy Wall Street (the OCCUPY banner of which was taken up by groups in England, Germany and Ireland, among others); the 15-M Movement in Spain and the protests in Italy and Greece.  Most of these movements continue barely acknowledged by the media.  The common cause of the protesters: income inequality.   In the West this was and is represented by the banking system and finance industry – the ubiquitous 1%.  Government corruption are also being targeted.  And while most of these protests began peacefully, few have ended so.

Ahdaf Soueif is perhaps best known for her novels In the Eye of the Sun and The Map of Love; and her marriage to the late author Ian Hamilton. She is also a journalist, translator, and political activist who calls both London and Cairo home.  Her son, Omar Robert Hamilton, is a filmmaker and a founding member of the activist media collective Mosireen.  Cairo: Memoir of a City Transformed expands on her earlier account of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution Cairo:  My City, Our Revolution, published in 2012 by Bloomsbury UK.  This new edition includes a final chapter entitled “Eighteen Days Were Never Enough”.

What happened during those original eighteen days?  The Egyptian people, led by the Egyptian youth (Shabaab) , descended on Tahrir Square demanding that Mubarak step down and Democratic elections be held.  The political factions – and they were many – formed a temporary truce in support of the greater good.  The Egyptian Army stood with the protesters.  At least for a time.  Mubarak’s people sent wave after wave of attacks, sometimes covertly through saboteurs who infiltrated the Square.  Many young people were injured or killed.  Their leaders were imprisoned.  Throughout this time, Tahrir Square was transformed.  Much like Zuccotti Park in NYC, it became a campground, a festival and a political stage.

Both books seem to be based on the journals and notes Soueif kept as events were happening; she frequently refers to her determination to act as a witness  But her writing is more polished, more novelistic, than a simple journal entry.  Her words lack the immediacy of a true, first hand report.  Ms. Soueif narrates in over-ripe prose; managing to capture all of the romance, exuberance and child-like euphoria of those early days of revolution.  Every moment is saturated with portent and emotion.  Her family members stride, godlike across the pages – often appearing and acting as a collective.  The scenes where she describes them coming together take on the characteristics of the magical realism genre.  As in the scene where they celebrate her nephew’s release from prison and the birth of his son (the newest member of this tightly knit family).

We swept and cleaned the house I’d refurbished in my mother’s orchard. We laid out tables and chairs and strung up colored lights and strings of Egyptian flags. We set up a barbecue, and all our family and friends and friends of friends came and brought lots of food. We played music and danced and carried Khaled in a satin-lined sieve into every room and into all the dark corners so he would know his wa;y and know there was nothing,ever, to be afraid of, and we sprinkled the seven seeds in his path so he would always have plenty, and we sang to him the old instructions to obey his mother and father and added that he must never ever obey SCAF or a government. My mother’s orchard was teaming and buzzing and radiating love and light. And just before midnight, we all drove to Tahrir – the biggest family home in the world.  And despite the dark days, Tahrir was full of hope and joy, and there was music and song and a church choir and people all the time gathering around Alaa and talking talking talking about the future and what we need to do.*

This isn’t meant as a negative criticism – quite the opposite. Cairo is the antithesis of what we’ve come to expect from the political book.  The novelistic quality – the over exuberance – of Soueif’s narrative voice is precisely what makes it so accessible and addictive.  It balances the obvious care taken revising and re-editing the text.  There is even a post-modern element – Soueif is very aware that the present in which these words are being read is different from her present.  That her readers exist in an uncertain future.

And so we follow the author as she moves between Tahrir Square, the various homes and offices of her family and the news studios from which she sends out dispatches to contradict the “official” reports being released by the government.  There is an emotional investment in what is happening – remember, these are her children and this is her city. Souef’s son, nieces and nephews, sisters and brothers, friends and neighbors all play a part.  Her worry and pride is palpable, stirring the same in her readers.  While her generation is involved,  the 2011 Revolution is primarily led by the  Shabaab.  They are the front line.  And there are times when the streets surrounding the Square were a war zone.

For those who only know Soueif as a novelist, Cairo is a vivid reminder of her roots in journalism.  She possesses the ability to step back and recognize the larger implications of what is happening in her home country.  And so she interrupts herself (in a chapter called, appropriately, “An Interruption”.  Interjecting from 18 months in the future to report on the current state of the Revolution.   The format is the same one she uses throughout the entire book.  The narrative loosely organized into days and hours.   But the exuberance is momentarily gone.  The movement’s leaders, many of the same nieces as nephews who we stood in the Square with a few pages ago, are now being accused and arrested.  Fissures are forming between the different political parties.  The population of the city is growing weary of the interruptions to their lives.   A lot has changed.  Soueif acknowledges that even more time has passed for the reader.  That even more changes of which she is unaware will occur.  “You… are in a future unknown to me”.  And of course she is right.

In the present we know that Mubarak was forced out, that general elections were held and Mohamed Morsi became Egypt’s first democratically elected president.  In June of 2013 public protests were held calling for his resignation and in July he was forcibly removed by a military coup.  Adly Mahmoud Mansour was appointed interim president.  The military has in recent months begun a crackdown on leaders of the 2011 revolution and Morsi is facing charges of incitement of murder, violence and of espionage.  A police station in Mansoura was bombed on December 24th and the government is declaring the Muslim Brotherhood responsible (despite the group’s denials).  They’ve been labeled a terrorist organization in Egypt.  The network that ran Mubarak’s security state, by many accounts, is back.  Violence swells, breaks and recedes for a time, only to swell again.  And readers outside of Egypt are left trying to sift the news for truth.

“This book is not a record of an event that’s over; it’s an attempt to welcome you into, to make you part of, an event that we’re still living.  And there are two problems in the writing of it.  One is that while the eighteen days are locked into the past, the revolution and the fight to hold on to it continue, and every day the landscape shifts.  THe other is that you – my reader – are in a future unknown to me, and yet I want to tell a story that will ease the leap you need to make between where this book stops and where Egypt is as you read.”

For those interested in learning more, the New York Times publishes up to date news on events in Egypt here. You can follow Ahdaf Soueif on Twitter @asoueif and her son, Omar Robert Hamilton, @ORHamilton.

* To clarify: Khaled is the infant

Publisher: Pantheon Books, New York (2014)

ISBN: 978 0 307 90810 0

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, translated from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter

February 19, 2014 § 8 Comments

A True Novel SlipcaseA True Novel by Japanese author Minae Mizumura, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, has been receiving a lot of positive attention since its release this past November by Other Press.*  Not least because it comes in a lovely two-volume, illustrated and slip-cased edition.  Most readers will come to A True Novel, or avoid it, based on the Wuthering Heights connection. But this reinvention of that classic novel, set in post-war Japan, manages to transcend the material on which it is based.

The major themes are the same: gorgeous landscapes; a tragic love story; ghosts; unreliable (and multiple) narrators. And if that was all A True Novel was – a simple retelling of a classic tale, with the same characters placed in a more modern setting –  getting through 880 pages might have been more of a challenge.  But the differences are significant.  Mizumura’s decision to set her story in the affluent and tranquil Summer community of Karuizawa, Japan – at a time of major social transition – instead of the tempestuous and dramatic Yorkshire moors changes the overall tone.  And the way she playfully approaches the act of homage transforms it into something else entirely: an elaborate version of whisper down the lane.

The novel has three distinct narrators. The first is Mizumura herself, who spends the first 150+ pages explaining her connection to the characters she writes about. This Preface and Prologue is meant to establish the illusion that the book is a work of non-fiction. An “I novel“. She explains how the bulk of the story was told to her by the second narrator: a young man named Yusuke who corresponds with the Lockwood character.  Yusuke, in turn, learned most of what he tells Mizumura through a third narrator: Fumiko is the maid who was actively involved in the lover’s adventures – Nelly Dean if you’re keeping track.  And so we are four times removed, reading Mizumura’s transcription of Yusuke’s retelling of Fumiko’s version of the events she witnessed (and influenced).  All of which is, once again, loosely based on Emily Bronte’s original Wuthering Heights. I use the term loosely because this is a version of Wuthering Heights as translated through the dual lenses of Japanese culture and language.

There’s a cleanness to Japanese translations that I adore. A sharpness and a clarity.  A characteristic stripping away of extraneous adjectives and sentimentality.  Juliet Winters Carpenter’s translation is a sharp contrast to Bronte’s 19th-century Gothicism.  For an example: compare the words of the two heroines, Cathy & Yoko, describing their connection to their respective heroes –

“My great miseries in this world have been  Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning: my great thought in living is himself. If all perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger; I should not seem a part of it.” – Cathy

“I feel as if I’ve disappeared, myself.” She sounded even more remote.  It was as if while she was standing there her spirit had gone off to wander some far corner of the earth…  “I will never, ever forgive him,” she said in a low firm voice, and bit her lip again. “Never. Not as long as I live.” She put up a good front, but she may finally have begun to understand what it meant to be loved that much by someone like Taro – in a life she was given only one chance to live. – Yoko.

Yes, Mizumura’s prose (in Carpenter’s hands) is minimal. Particularly when compared to Bronte’s. But that doesn’t mean the words suffer from a lack of substance or are devoid of poetry. There is an aching sense of loss that permeates every character in every word on every page of A True Novel.  And it is still very much a ghost story; more so even than the original.  The characters in Wuthering Heights (including the dead) are vibrant, full of life and passion. Yoko and her lover Taro, Fumiko, the three sisters (who feature prominently and who I’ve intentionally avoided describing so that you can discover them for yourselves), even Yusuke… they are all haunted. Each has crossed an invisible line.  Their connections to the past  is stronger than their grounding in the present. As a result the reader instinctively understands that this story is over, the characters left wandering among shades, even as we are experiencing it for the first time.

 Anyway, in the end, as he alone knew – and knew only too well – she held absolute sway over him.

“You apologize!” The demand rang out more insistently.

In the white light of the full moon I saw Taro drop down on his knees and, supporting himself with both hands, lay his forehead flat on the ground in an attitude of abject apology.  The flashlight he’d laid down shone on the pebbles. I gasped as Yoko slipped off one wooden clog and put her bare foot on his head to press it down farther. There was no need for me to intrude, however. As soon as her toes touched his head, she lost her balance and toppled over, landing on the ground beside him. Now she began bawling even harder, fists in her eyes, elbows sticking out in the air. Taro jumped up, grabbed her by the hands, and pulled her up off the ground.  Then he was on his knees again. He took her bare foot in his hands and slipped the wooden clog back on, then brushed the dirt off the hem of her yukata. His slim figure was radiant in the light of the moon.

I watched in bemusement as the two children disappeared hand in hand up the dark mountain path to the strains of the “Tokyo Ballad.”

One item the many reviewers and fans of this book don’t seem to be discussing (except in passing) are the photographs.  Lovely black & white pictures with simple captions of the places where they were taken: “Western-Style Summer Villa With Bay Windows”; “Chikuma River”; “Oiwake Station”.  All places mentioned book. But deserted. Emptied of people. Brilliant.  The illustrator N.C. Wyeth once said that his goal was to illustrate the scenes that were not fully developed or described by the author.  His illustrations were created to add and build on the author’s text, not just interpret it. His portrait of blind Pew in Treasure Island being the most famous example.  Toyota Horiguchi’s gorgeous photographs are the next stage in the evolution of this tradition.

Toyota Horiguchi's black & white cover photos.

Toyota Horiguchi’s black & white cover photos.

A True Novel is a favorite among the judges of this year’s Best Translated Book Award. It’s a foregone conclusion that it will be on the long list.  I’d be shocked if it didn’t make the shortlist.  Should it win… well…  it would be a huge departure from past winners which have fallen into the category of less traditional (less accessible, even) works.  It’s looking to be an interesting contest and I can’t wait for  March 11th to see how it plays out.

Publisher:  Other Press, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 159051203 6

*Other Press consistently gives as much care to the quality of the physical book as it does to the words it contains.  They are one of my favorite publishers – always interesting and always innovative. And yet they’ve surpassed even my expectations with the loveliness of this book.

Two Short Works of Non-Fiction by Readux Books

December 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

Whether or not you subscribe to the theory that the digital age is creating an ADD society (there was a great article about this last month in The Guardian) time is at a premium in today’s world and there’s no arguing the attractions of shorter fiction.   Earlier this year I ran a series of posts featuring bloggers discussing why they love – or hate – short stories.  Novellas are also growing in popularity. Readux Books, the new publisher based in Berlin, has hit the sweet spot somewhere between the two with the release of their first collection of books this past October.

A lot of care has obviously gone into the making and launching these books.  Each is approximately 5,000 to 10,000 words – a length Readux feels is in keeping with “reading habits in the digital era, without room for slack, but that is long enough to allow complex themes to be developed.”  The gorgeous, brightly colored paperback covers referencing the German Expressionists.  The writing is experimental – of the four books, three are translations – yet accessible.   Readux has obviously made clever choices and taken some calculated chances in the planning stages.    And while each of the four books is sold individually, they share common themes, ideas and a consistent packaging that had me coveting them for my bookshelves.  This careful curating reminds me of some of my favorite independent publishers: New Directions, Open Letter and Other Press.

The two non-fiction titles are memoirs about life in Berlin, written from two different periods in the city’s history.  Yet, the Berlin described appears remarkably unchanged despite an 85 year gap in the timeline.  The changes in writing styles are much more drastic.  Franz Hessel’s In Berlin: Day and Night in 1929 lacks the post-modern trappings of City of Rumor: The Compulsion to Write About Berlin (written by Gideon Lewis-Kraus in 2013).  The former is a period piece that is similar to Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories.  Not surprising, as both he and Hessel lived in Berlin at the same time.  It’s not unthinkable that they would even have traveled in the same circles.

Hessel was a Jewish editor, author and translator.  He was a member of the German artist community.  His complicated marriage to the journalist Helen Grund inspired Henri Pierre Roche’s novel Jules et Jim (which, in turn, inspired the 1962 François Truffaut film of the same name).  Eventually, he would flee Germany for France and he and his son would be sent to an internment camp.  He died in 1941, the same year he was released from the camp.

But here Hessel is writing about the heady days before the tragedy of WWII.  His descriptions of Berlin and its citizens are frenzied and entertaining.  In Berlin is an all too brief excerpt of what I believe must have been a longer piece in which we readers get to follow Hessel and his companions as they drift between cabarets, parties and clubs. We meet the German equivalent of Flappers and get a taste of the sexually progressive atmosphere that permeated the city at that time.  The sharp, witty prose style is characteristic of Lois Long’s column for the New Yorker during the same period.

… Gert and Maria deliberate on what else we could undertake to do. “Why don’t you young people go upstairs and dance?” I ask.  “I don’t want to,” says Maria, “but maybe Gert would find some companionship in the Blaue Salon.” “Actually I was supposed to stop in to Ambassadeurs today at midnight.”” In my inexperience, I am informed that this is the newest extension of the Barberina.  Gert and Maria then discuss the quality of the various jazz bands and tango groups in the big hotels, in the Palais am Zoo, in the Valencia, etc.  I somewhat timidly introduce my experiences from the little Silhoette.  “why don’t we just go across the way here to Eldorado?  That’s where the real bedlam’s at.  You’re all for chaos, smoking and sport jackets, transvestites, little girls, and great ladies, aren’t you?  Of course you’re more for what’s proper, Gert, you want elegant dancing and limits, you want to go to Königin.”  But in the end we decide on something completely different.

If you’re in Germany you can buy a set of (4) posters featuring Readux covers.

In contrast, City of Rumor by Gideon Lewis-Kraus spends less time writing about Berlin, the city, and more on his conflicted emotions regarding it.  He is a modern-day expatriate.  Lewis-Kraus is an American journalist whose work has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, The New York Times Magazine and the London Review of Books.  His writing is as beautiful as Hessel’s, but also more fraught. The modern Berlin he describes is still a frenetic party scene, but seems less innocent and more world-weary. The essay, itself, reads much more self-indulgent; the main conflict being internalized.  Berlin assumes the secondary role, stripped of its unique character and becoming interchangeable with cities like Brooklyn, London or L.A.   “Hipster” is a word that comes to mind.   “Angst” is another.  Of course, the subtitle is “The Compulsion to Write About Berlin“, – so you could say that Lewis-Kraus has delivered on what was advertised.

The chapter about Berlin, like the lives of man of the people I knew in Berlin, had no such constraint – no relevant chronology, no narrative necessity. When I sat down to write about Berlin for the first time, all I could do was make a list of anecdotes, the ones that had lingered with me for some reason, in no particular order.  I wrote them out as a series of disordered episodes – the time we followed the votive candles to the rave in the toolshed in the middle of the park, the time our friend held a real art opening outside a fake art opening – and saw little use or accuracy in connecting them.  After all, they had only ever felt associatively connected in the first place.  They had, or course, happened in one particular order, though as far as I could tell they might very well have happened in any other order, or no order at all.

Side-by-side these essays seem not about Berlin but instead about two generations of young urbanites.  That contrast between authors is what I found most interesting.  Individually they’re entertaining reads – but considered together they have the potential to spark a larger conversation about historical, cultural and literary changes.

The two fiction titles are Fantasy by Malte Persson, translated from Swedish by Saskia Vogel and The Marvel of Biographical Bookkeeping by Francis Nenik, translated from German by Katy Derbyshire.

Publisher:  Readux Books, Berlin

In Berlin: Day and Night in 1929
ISBN:  978 3 944801 01 8

City of Rumor: The Compulsion to Write About Berlin
ISBN:  978 3 944801 03 2

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A Short Tale of Shame by Angel Igov, translated from the original Bulgarian by Angela Rodel

October 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

http://catalog.openletterbooks.org/images/covers/Short_Tale-front.jpgAngela Rodel has translated three Bulgarian novels for Open Letter Books: 18% Gray by Zachary Karabashliev, Thrown Into Nature by Milen Rouskov, and A Short Tale of Shame by Angel Igov (the last is the subject of this review).  She also translated Nine Rabbits by Virginia Zaharieva for the UK publisher Istros Books. In addition to being a translator she is a musician and an actress.  She lives in Bulgaria.

A Short Tale of Shame is the second book I’ve read and reviewed by Rodel.  Both books featured introspective, male protagonists dealing with loss.  Her translation recalls for me Edith Grossman’s work in Spanish. Her work is fluid, allowing readers to slip gently into the prose like they would a swimming pool.  Both 18% Gray and A Short Tale of Shame are hauntingly poetic – and while the majority of the credit for that goes to their authors, I can’t help believing that some should go to Rodel as well.  Her name should be on your list of must-read translators.

Coincidence and fortuitous meetings propel the plot of A Short Tale of Shame. Boril Krustev is a middle-aged, former rock star.  His estranged wife has just died and his relationship with his daughter is not great.  In a cliché attempt to outrun his grief, he jumps into his car and drives.  There is no plan.  Within the first few pages he picks up a group of hitchhikes, a college-aged boy and two girls.  Maya, Sirma and Spartacus are likeable young people (just as Boril is likeable) who are unusually close.  They discover over small talk that the threesome are friends with his daughter, Elena.  Shortly after this revelation it’s decided that Boril will travel with them to  Thasos, an island off the coast of Greece. The story of their barely intertwined lives unfolds from there.

Krustev felt a little duped because instead of watching the boat arrive, instead of seeing the island dust off its dress uniform to meet the new arrivals, he had to go down to the car and get ready to leave.  But he left the kids up on deck to watch the palace of the Grand Master above the dappled coast, stern and supercilious, and at least that was some consolation, as if some part of him would stay there, too, watching.  Without noticing it and without meaning to, he had already slipped into their net of key words and tacit agreements, and he was force to admit that this made him feel good.  When he stopped on that Rhodope road and picked them up, he had simply wanted company, people to chat with, to distract him, and to have some immediate goal, in order to drive them to it.  But from then on everything had developed quickly and simply, and the mutual discomfort they had felt, he with them and they with him, was actually more helpful than not, for example on the beach on Thasos he had tried to look aside so as not to stare at Sirma’s brazenly displayed breasts, this had, in fact, brought him closer to them, some quiet thread of shame gleamed in the sunlight for an instant, weaving yet another tie between them.  Alone in his car, in the garage, winded from the gas fumes, Krustev told himself that whatever the three teenagers’ secret was, he didn’t want to know it, he wasn’t enticed by the possibility of muscling his way between them, of digging through the strange space enclosed by their triangle, and he was thankful that they returned the gesture, not asking him why he had taken off on his own and what had happened, and if they had guessed, they didn’t pursue their conjectures with the doggedness of a blind hunter, something he remembered so well from his own youth, back then he had probed every patch of earth, digging down to reach a spring, and once he had drunk from the precious water, he lost interest, just as when he had played his solo and had to return to the familiar and steady rhythm of the song and somehow hold out until the end of it.

Angel Igov assumes the detached perspective of the third person, and through him the reader has  the opportunity to dip into the minds and memories of each of the four characters.  Much of what is revealed involves Elena – apparently a cruel and manipulative person.  She bothered me.  In that she remains a fragmented character who we interact with only through the memories of others.  Her motivations remain elusive; her actions go unexplained. She is Iago-like in the casual way she goes about destroying the lives of others.

It’s hard to reconcile her being Boril’s daughter.

You would think that the story of an older man traveling with three young people would immediately turn creepy, and the title: A Short Tale of Shame seems to suggest it.  But Boril is decidedly un-creepy.  He’s actually really nice.  He doesn’t overstep or ogle the girls. He’s careful not to use his money to assume a position of power. In truth, he is just as he appears: a slightly lost and lonely man mourning the death of his wife and his lack of a meaningful relationship with his daughter.

Maya, Sirma and Spartacus have no ulterior motivations either.  They do not intend to take advantage of Boril or his wealth.  The car is convenient, but mostly they seem to genuinely like and feel sorry for him. The only snake in this garden appears to be Elena.  And she is far enough away as to not pose a significant threat.

This lack of conflict comes as a surprise because there is an undercurrent of tension throughout the story – one that can’t be solely attributed to Elena.  Something doesn’t seem right. I kept expecting some kind of dark, sexual revelation to occur, when what is eventually revealed ends up being rather innocuous. This lack of a twist is strange, but it in no way takes away from the story. 

A Short Tale of Shame takes a more complicated path than one leading to a single moment or revelation.  Igov puts you in a bubble with Boril, Maya, Sirma and Spartacus.  Inevitably that bubble bursts and the ending, when it arrives, is abrupt.  The reader is left disoriented.  As if he or she has been startled from a daydream.  This, in a way, is what this book is: an interlude in the lives of these characters.  Lovely, but isolated.  The significance of which will no doubt diminish over time, even as the memory lingers.

A Short Tale of Shame was a Co-Winner of the 2012 Contemporary Bulgarian Writers Contest.

Publisher:  Open Letter, Rochester (2013)
ISBN:  978 1 934824 76

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The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain, translated from the original French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie, Emily Boyce & Jane Aitken

September 29, 2013 § 1 Comment

The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain is another playful offering from Gallic Press, whose The Suicide Shop I reviewed just last month.

As he picked up his second oyster he glanced discreetly to his left. The President had put on his glasses and was reading the menu.  Daniel took in the famous noble profile, seen in magazines, on television and every New Year’s Eve for the past five years.  Now he was seeing that profile in the flesh.  He could have put out his hand and touched François Mitterrand.

The waiter returned and the President ordered a dozen oysters, and the salmon.  The large man chose mushroom pâté and a rare steak, while Roland Dumas followed the President’s lead with oysters and fish.  A few minutes later, the wine waiter appeared with a silver ice bucket on a stand containing another bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé bathed in ice.  He uncorked the bottle smoothly and poured a little into the presidential glass.  François Mitterrand tasted it, approving it with a brief nod.

Daniel poured himself another glass of wine, and drank it down almost in on, before taking a teaspoon of the red shallot vinegar and dressing an oyster.

‘As I was saying to Helmut Kohl last week…’ Daniel heard François Mitterrand say as he ate his oyster.  Never again, he told himself, would he be able to eat oysters with vinegar without hearing the words: ‘As I was saying to Helmut Kohl last week’.

The premise is relatively simple:  The French President François Mitterrand loses his hat in a Parisian brasserie.  Well, technically, Daniel steals it after dining next to the President and his party.  Through the course of the book the hat continues to change hands and transforms the lives of the four characters who wear it.  The prose is straightforward.  The story sweet.  Like The Suicide ShopThe President’s Hat has the slapstick quality of a French comedy.  It is not particularly complicated or challenging, but very engaging.  The relaxed, gentle tone in how it is told reminded me of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series – slightly more whimsical.

Which reminds me of a friend of mine who went to a book-signing by Alexander McCall Smith at Barnes & Noble.  She came back completely charmed.  The author relayed an anecdote in which someone asked him why there were no car chases in his novels.  He laughingly replied that he felt it would be irresponsible of him to include a car chase in one of his books.  That his readers might not be able to handle that level of excitement.  But, as a compromise, he had included a shopping cart chase in the new novel he was there to sign.  It received a huge laugh and a smattering of applause from the crowd.  They knew it to be true.

There’s always been a readership for quiet books in which very little happens.  Several examples come to mind. The types of stories found in Ladies Journals were very popular when Ladies Journals were in their heyday. Today, the Persephone Press seems to thrive on catering to the  quiet reader with re-prints of books by women authors from the first half of the 20th-century.  And while planning this post I kept thinking back on some of my favorite books/authors from when I was younger: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Jack & Jill, Under the Lilacs and Eight Cousins were read multiple times; and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House series.  Those books had more in common with McCall Smith novels than what I read now.

So I’m wary of being too hard on or of dismissing The President’s Hat simply because I don’t have much to say about it.  I did read it in one sitting, cover to cover, and enjoyed it (particularly the little twist at the end).  I loved each of the characters who found the hat and became completely wrapped up in their individual stories.  This may be the perfect book for a quiet evening at home.  Antoine Laurain appears to have no aspirations other than to amuse his readers with a tale well told… which he does.  At least this reader was amused.  And I’m sure my friend who reads Alexander McCall Smith will love it.  In fact, I just sent her the recommendation on GoodReads.

Publisher:  Gallic Books, London (2013)
ISBN:  978 1 908313 47 8

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