Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Wardrobe adventure both silly, earnest

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The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who got Trapped in an IKEA Wardrobe, Romain Puértolas' first novel, is destined to be a top pick at airport bookstores worldwide.

Marketed to fans of Jonas Jonasson's The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, Wardrobe is a comic exploration of immigration laws, cultural tolerance (or lack thereof) and the foibles of modern travel. It is cosmopolitan in the silliest sense of the word, but also, perhaps, the most earnest.

Herein lies its charm. Wardrobe, translated from the French by novelist Sam Taylor and published in English exclusively by Random House, begins with the arrival of the Indian fakir/con artist Ajatashatru Oghash Rathod at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. Rathod looks "like a government minister who'd been stapled repeatedly in the face and then shoved, fully clothed, in the washing machine."

Clothed in a shiny suit intended to make him look like a wealthy Indian industrialist, he is bound for the nearest IKEA with nothing but a single counterfeit 100 Euro note (printed on one side only), to purchase Hertsyörbåk -- an all-pine bed of nails.

Through a fantastic series of events Rathod becomes trapped in a wardrobe at the IKEA — and so begins his zigzag journey across Europe and North Africa by taxi, truck, airplane, ship and hot-air balloon. Along the way, he collects a grab-bag of friends and enemies, from the beautiful, real-life film star Sophie Marceau (The World is Not Enough) to an angry Greek taxi driver and his blood brothers, with a smattering of Sudanese refugees thrown in for good measure.

This novel is certainly not a literary masterpiece, and its charm is the sort that translates easily into film — relying on a cornucopia of cultural stereotypes, slapstick action and puns worthy of an Asterix comic.

Puértolas, formerly a police inspector with the French border services, wrote the novel on his mobile phone during his morning commute. Wardrobe is a bestseller in France and is being published in 36 countries; a screenplay is in the works.

The fakir's journey is something of a metaphor for the life of Wardrobe's adventurous author; its ironic tone is exactly what you might expect from a novel written on a mobile phone.

But Wardrobe, surprisingly, has at its core a twist of real feeling; a humane political agenda. Through Rathod's expedition, Puértolas highlights the difficulties of illegal immigrants seeking asylum in "the good countries."

Although it strikes an odd note in a novel otherwise dedicated to lighthearted bonhommie, Puértolas devotes much real estate, in the final pages of Wardrobe, to their plight: "... during that candlelit dinner, 854 migrants would attempt to illegally cross the borders into the 'good countries'... Only 31 of them would make it."

Wardrobe is full of self-deprecating humour that makes it likeable against all odds. "Marie replaced the receiver, her heart devoured by the flames of a wildfire -- a sentence that does not really mean much, but which does possess a certain literary flair," Puértolas jokes.

The book possesses plenty of flair. And even if it doesn't mean very much, its intentions are good.

 

Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg-based writer and editor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 9, 2014 G6

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Updated on Saturday, August 9, 2014 at 8:06 AM CDT: Formatting.

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