Alibi V.24 No.11 • March 12-18, 2015 

Book Review

The Liar, the French and the IKEA Wardrobe

[photo]The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir who got Trapped in an IKEA Wardrobe: A Novel

hardcover
fiction
$22.95

The book is nearly novella short but its title is as long and quirky as they come. It’s The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir who got Trapped in an IKEA Wardrobe, the debut novel of Romain Puértolas, an overnight phenomenon in his native France. The title is accurate, though it could as easily have been called The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir who Wrote a Novel on a Shirt While Talking to a Dog or The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir who Escaped a Knife-Wielding Gypsy on a Baggage Carousel. Et cetera. Be prepared for a number of distinctly odd happenings, in other words.

Ajatashatru Oghash is the name of our fakir antihero-turned-hero. And in case you were wondering, it’s pronounced A-jar-of-rat-stew-oh-gosh! Or at least that’s what we’re told on page six. By the time page eight rolls around, we’re told it’s A-cat-in-a-bat-suit and A-jackal-that-ate-you on page nine. So maybe just use your own judgment.

In the course of his titular journey, he transitions from a con man who bamboozles his fellow Indian villagers out of their none-too-plentiful cash into someone capable of real empathy and desiring to do good in the world. He meets a Sudanese immigrant named Assefa trying to sneak into the UK in the back of a truck. Assefa explains that he never travels with women or children “so that we are never seen this way. So that we can be remembered as big and strong. Always.” But he does it for the children back home who look like they’re hiding basketballs under the skin of their stomachs. The two men form an immediate friendship that marks the beginning of the fakir’s re-centering from the self to the world at large.

Others are less enthralled with Ajatashatru. Why would someone name their child A-Japanese-ass-toot? wonders one character, taking an immediate dislike to our protagonist.

The fakir gets bumped around Europe (with a stopover in Libya) like a pinball. The border services act as an immigrant catapult, launching captured infiltrators into whatever distant country they have a pretext for. In one man’s pocket, they find a wooden spoon with the handle missing. This is mistaken for a castanet, so off to Spain he is sent. Ditto for the Russian who rolls his r’s. Puértolas’ own background working with the French border police serves him well here.

At its heart it’s a tall tale about colliding worlds. It’s about people who happen to have been born in the “good countries” and those who were unfortunate enough to be born on the wrong side of the Mediterranean like Assefa. It depicts an absurd satirical world we would call Kafkaesque if it weren’t so frothy, French and ultimately optimistic.

Romain Puértolas: So French, no?
Romain Puértolas: So French, no?
Eric Clément