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Book Review: The extraordinary journey of the fakir who got trapped in an Ikea wardrobe

By (January 31, 2015) No Comment

The extraordinary journey of the fakir who got trapped in an Ikea wardrobeextraordinary journe cover

by Romain Puertolas

translated from the French by Sam Taylor

Knopf, 2015

The main character of Romain Puertolas’s enormously successful debut novel L’Extraordinaire Voyage du Fakir Qui Etait Reste Coince dans un Amoire IKEA is Ajatashatru Oghash Rathod, an Indian fakir who’s been defrauding the gullible about his own mystic powers since he was ten years old. By the time we meet him, he’s in vaguely patrician middle age (we’re told that strangers reflexively think he’s some sort of successful industrialist), and he arrives on American shores in much the way this new English-language version of his book (The extraordinary journey of the fakir who got trapped in an Ikea wardrobe, translated from the French by Sam Taylor) does: wide-eyed, optimistic, and perhaps just a bit on the make.

“I was so good at ripping off the people in town, especially the intelligent ones!” Ajatashatru admits in a long confession during the book’s frankly weird denouement,

Because intelligent people are easier to fool. They are sure of themselves, so they don’t pay attention. They think nobody can make a fool of them. And, just like that, you’ve got ’em! It’s different with the idiots. They’re used to people thinking they’re stupid, so as soon as they come across a smooth talker, they’re immediately on their guard.

By the time our author has him blurt all this out, Puertolas has put Ajatashatru (we’re puckishly and perhaps presciently told what the book’s various tongue-twister names sound like: A-jar-of-rat-stew-oh-gosh! or perhaps A-cat-in-a-bat-suit, or maybe A-jackal-that-ate-you) through a Cervantean series of misadventures, first in America and then in a baker’s dozen exotic locales, almost all of them turning on a maxim repeated often in variation, “People like to confide in strangers.”

But Ajatashatru himself is a Russian doll of collapsing deceptions; we’re told that the official reason he doesn’t have a cell phone is because it would be redundant for the telepath he claims to be, but that the unofficial reason was that he couldn’t afford one, and that “the real, shameful reason was that he had no one to call.” And the unexpectedly nuanced pathos of those rationalizations hints at the more serious novel Puertolas not only didn’t write but has been resoundingly praised for having written. The French and UK reviews of his book were a virtually unwrinkled wallpaper of glorious sunrises (“a comic romp,” “a triumph,” and so on), most of them stressing an element that, to put it mildly, the French claim to value more highly than their American cousins: that deadly word whimsy.

It’s frighteningly flimsy armor with which to send a little novel into the den of dyspeptic lions that is the American book-reviewing troupe. The two likeliest reviewers for the New York Times have four divorces between them; the reviewer most likely to be tapped by the LA Times is roughly 117 years old and hasn’t liked a novel since Booth Tarkington was alive; the columnist for another great daily is rumored to grumble aloud while standing in line for soup. A novel brandishing something as Spring-afternoon as whimsy might find itself on rocky ground in such a squinting group.

But maybe they’ll spot those same fugitive strands of the much darker novel that run through so much of Puertolas’s book. When he makes a point of repeating explicitly the sordid story of the transaction Ajatashatru conducted as a ten-year-old for a man’s small plastic lighter, he’s very clearly not aiming at whimsy, and when he indulges – as he often does – in quick asides about the hard political worlds the feckless fakir visits, there are no jokes:

The political situation in Sudan had plunged the country into an economic stagnation that had led many men – the strongest – to risk the dangers of emigration. But away from home, even the sturdiest men become vulnerable: beaten animals with lifeless expressions, their eyes full of extinguished stars. Far from their houses, they all became frightened children, and the only thing that could console them was the success of their venture.

For American readers with long memories, The extraordinary journey of the fakir who got trapped in an Ikea wardrobe might bring back some very fond memories of Mohammed Hanif’s 2008 debut novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes, and the comparison should be more apt than it currently is. Puertolas is a very smart novelist with a sharp prose style; he’s probably capable of serious wonders, if whimsy isn’t his undoing. But a six-digit paycheck is a hard thing to spurn, even though it almost invariably teaches the wrong lessons.