Sending a character on a journey has been a staple of fiction writers through the centuries. From Herman Melville's Ishmael to Jane Austen's Catherine Morland to Eilis Lacey, the heroine of Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn, many a naive young protagonist has been dispatched on literal and metaphorical journeys of self-discovery over the course of a novel.
In recent years this journey has become something of a pilgrimage. The Swedish author Jonas Jonasson found international fame in 2009 with The 100-Year-Old-Man Who Jumped Out the Window and Disappeared. In 2012 Rachel Joyce's impressive debut, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, earned the British author a place on the Man Booker longlist.
The latest addition to the pilgrimage canon is Romain Puértolas's debut novel, The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe (Harvill Secker, £12.99). Possesed of a self-consciously long title and a main character who goes on an unusual and magical trip, the French author's funny and compassionate tale is a bestseller in his native country.
At the heart of this genre are ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The journey of Puértolas's fakir from India across Europe is at once far fetched and thought provoking, a fast-paced comedy that mixes flat-packed furniture with serious themes such as illegal immigration. The story behind the book's creation is itself extraordinary: Puértolas wrote it on his mobile phone while working as a border guard.
Part street magician, part self-styled holy man, Ajatashatru Oghash Rathod is a Rajasthani beggar, more faker than fakir, living off his wits and his ability to deceive. Aja arrives in Paris and cons a conman taxi driver into bringing him to Ikea so he can buy a bed of nails.
He is not the most prepared of travellers. With a fake €100 note and little else, Aja plans to eat in the Ikea canteen while staying under a bed in the showroom. Choosing the wrong wardrobe to hide in sets the likeable rogue on a journey that will see him fall in love, find riches and develop an altruistic perspective on life.
To get from India to Paris, the UK, Barcelona, Rome and Tripoli and back to Paris again in the space of a few days is no easy task for someone with no money. Aja takes whatever mode of transport he can get: wardrobe, hot-air balloon, the suitcase of a famous actor. On his travels he encounters others who are desperate to make a life in Europe, and the subject of illegal immigration, including its dangers for those who attempt it, forms the heart of the book.
As Aja is transported to the UK in a delivery truck, he meets six Sudanese immigrants, all of whom will be caught and shunted between various European borders before being deported. Aja befriends Assefa and the other men. They offer him food and tell him their dreams of living in the “good countries” of Europe.
Aja relays their story with frankness and compassion. “Why do some live while others – always the same ones – have the right only to shut up and die?” Deeply affected by the suffering of his new friends, he sees the error of his ways and limits his fraudulent talents to performing magic tricks for children.
Puértolas avoids the pitfalls of polemic and relies instead on absurd situational comedy to get his point across. Much humour is derived from the intertextual nature of the book. “A heart is a little bit like a large wardrobe.” So begins our journey with the fakir in the form of an epigraph he has uttered himself.
Phonetic asides purport to help with the pronunciation of the fakir’s name. Ajatashatru is alternately A-cat-in-a-bat-suit, A-jar-of-rat-stew, A-jackal-that-ate-you. Exaggerated literary descriptions are repeated for multiple characters: “Large dark rings shadowed his eyes like two parentheses that no longer had the strength to stand straight.”
One of the most moving storylines comes from a novel within the novel, or in this case a novel written in the dark on a shirt in an aircraft baggage hold within the novel. In it Aja describes the bond that develops between a blind suicide bomber and his cellmate in a Sri Lankan prison. The twist at the end of his tale is then cleverly exploited for more meta-related laughs.
The whimsical tone of this excellent translation by Sam Taylor suits Aja’s discoveries about the world and how it operates. Much of the comedy is in the cultures the fakir encounters along the way. These are often intentional stereotypes of certain maligned groups – the Gypsy taxi driver, the greedy literary agent, the flamboyant hairdresser – but, with Aja’s knowing ignorance and penchant for extremes, they form a highly entertaining read.