An Easy Read Bestselling French Novel Furnishes Some Sense and Plenty of Nonsense

“The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe” is foolish, light and full of fun. It is a mix of social issues woven together with globalization clichés for readers who are in need of a break from thinking.
Romain Puértolas' bestselling novel was first published in France where the author previously worked as a border guard.

Wow. Does anybody actually read books like this or do they just snooze through them, their eyes glazed over?

The response to Romain Puértolas’ global bestseller, “The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe” has been one of wonderment at what people have called a new genre.

That it is. Mr. Puértolas has created a hypnotic novel for readers who absently skim through books on standby mode.  The author, who is from France, once worked as a magician and his debut novel may be one of his most masterful tricks.

He has put together the perfect read for people slouching on the couch, their brain activity level dimmed down to stand-by mode. After all, you can understand the novel without having to pay attention. The first sentence, namely the title, tells you half the story already.

A fakir is an itinerant Muslim or Hindu ascetic who works wonders. The hero of this tale, Ajatashatru Oghash Rathod, is inventive and resourceful, winding his way through a tale that combines the familiar world with a touch of the exotic.

Ajatashatru flies to Paris with a counterfeit €100 note, heading to Ikea in Paris. He wants a new board, a piece of wood in Swedish pine plus 15,000 galvanized nails for his bed of nails, the board that ascetics lie on to demonstrate their skills.

Mr. Puértolas has created a hypnotic novel for readers who absently skim through books on standby mode.

Of course nothing works out as planned. Coming from the airport, the Roma taxi driver is pretty annoyed when he realizes he has been ripped off by the guy from India.

Secondly, the bed of nails costs more than Ajatashatru expected so he heads to the IKEA cafeteria in search of a lonely woman who might help him and applies all the charm of his Ray Ban sunglasses and Coca-Cola brown eyes.

Then he spends the night in IKEA, hiding in a wardrobe to avoid discovery. By mistake, he is shipped to England. His journey begins.

The story continues with breakneck transitions, two-dimensional figures and silly humor. But it’s no fun to malign the novel for its lack of craft.

There are more interesting things to look at, such as how Mr. Puértolas combines seemingly interesting social issues with universally familiar landmarks of global culture. And how does he mix nonsense with occasional insights to keep readers’ hearts beating?

It seems like an 80-20 mix, a good choice as that’s just about the ratio of bullshit to substance in real life. Let’s look a little closer at the good 20 percent.

Starting out in IKEA is cool. The store’s name conjures up a world all readers will recognize right away, plus it gives Mr. Puértolas a chance to make plenty of jokes too.

There are many places where IKEA marks a kind of border between those who can consume and are able to feel as though they’re part of a modest global middle class – and those left behind. On a workday in central Europe, the opposite is true, as lonely old-age retirees sit in IKEA cafeterias sipping all you can drink one-euro cups of coffee.

The naïve Ajatashatru travels from this dismal scene from one country to the next. He winds up following the routes of refugees for whom Europe represents paradise. The fakir finds himself sharing a truck with people from South Sudan who are trying to cross the border to Britain. Then the police put him on a plane bound for North Africa.

Here, Mr. Puértolas shares his experience working as a border guard for the French authorities. This was one of many different jobs Mr. Puértolas held, from DJ to translator, to singer to circus actor.

His work as an analyst for the French police investigating human trafficking and the routes of smugglers informs the insight and ideas about immigration portrayed in the novel.

Ajatashatru is enlightened along the way. The main character is the most original idea in the book. He’s an Asian hero, a conman transformed to become a better human being by his odyssey through the West.

"The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe" will be published in the United States in January 2015 by Alfred Knopf.