By Emma LaSaine
Romain Puértolas’s debut novel, much like its name, spans a great breadth. Geographically, the story carries readers, along with the titular fakir, from Paris to England, Barcelona to Rome, all the way to Libya, then back to France. At the start of this journey, Ajatashatru Oghash Rathod (Aja for short) is a self-interested swindler on a quest to buy a fakir-style bed of nails from Ikea, which he plans to resell for a profit upon his return to India. When Aja, spending the night in Ikea because he cannot afford a hotel, finds himself trapped inside a wardrobe that is shipped to England, he unintentionally becomes an “illegal alien.” Along the way, Aja suffers several “electric shocks” to the heart—epiphanies that broaden his world view, redirect his moral compass, and give him a newfound sense of purpose through his love for Marie, a beautiful French woman he meets along the way, and his desire to be worthy of her affections.
From the start, Puétorlas plays with perception, a key technique throughout the novel. We first see Aja through the eyes of Gustave Palourde, a Gypsy Cab driver who Aja cheats out of his fare by means of a counterfeit 100-euro bill (printed only on one side) and some invisible thread. Gustave, who turns out to be a violent and slightly dishonest member of the Romani community, recognizes Aja as a foreigner, and views his request to go straight from the airport to Ikea as bizarre. However, when Puétorlas backtracks and immediately retells the encounter, this time listening in to Aja’s thoughts, we discover that he has made an express effort to blend in with the Western locals and that this entire journey, while not a normal activity for the fakir, is perfectly reasonable (if morally dubious, considering that it has been financed through a series of dishonesties) in his mind.
Puétorlas uses this shifting third person to accomplish a sweeping array of tones and play with the reader’s perception of events. To Aja, the different display rooms constructed in the Ikea reveal real human lives—futures of young couples considering kids, evenings spent on the couch watching TV—despite the fact that these rooms are all false. To him, the automated doors on the front of the store are a technological miracle worthy of appreciation, to the French customers, they are only an aspect of everyday life. Aja’s outsider perspective makes readers question their own perceptions of Western culture and behavior. As Aja’s voyage ensues, the audience quickly discovers that they are merely along for the ride in this rapid-paced adventure where the ridiculous becomes rational and the accepted is revealed to be absurd.
Puétorlas manages to construct a largely farcical (and at times whimsical) journey that recalls such immersive adventures as Around the World in 80 Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, all the while establishing the fact that Aja’s journey takes place within our hardly fictional modern global reality. The novel handles humorous intricacies of pronunciation that come with transcultural encounters—Ajatshatru’s name alone is interpreted as “A-cat-in-a-bat-suit,” “A-jackal-that-ate-you” and “A-jar-of-rat-stew-oh-gosh!”—along with solomn geopolitical tensions and practices surrounding immigration and the divide between developing nations and what Assefa (“I-suffer”), a Sudanese migrant Aja encounters, calls “the good countries.”
Drawing, no doubt, on his time working as a French boarder guard, Puétorlas writes with remarkable intimacy about the way immigrants are transformed by the hardships they face, describing how “even the sturdiest men become vulnerable: beaten animals with lifeless expressions, their eyes full of extinguished stars,” when he lives with the eternal fear of being caught and sent back to the country and the situation he has worked so hard to escape. In our modern world wracked by war and the politics of refugee crises, Puétorlas aptly notes the absurdities and tragedies surrounding immigration restriction.
It is important not to be fooled by the humor of Aja’s occasionally slapstick encounters. Although the fakir makes his living by performing petty magic tricks, a master of perception in a sense, this mastery has its roots in a dark brush with the abuse and power dynamics that rule our postcolonial world. Aja may be a loveable fool, the good-natured cheat, but he also provides a window into the disparity in access to modernity, technology and basic quality of life that exists between “have” and “have-not” nations. As Aja travels throughout Europe and beyond, the reader also travels, learning to question their perceptions of what is “banal” and what is “magical,” while reshaping their sense of personal identity within the larger framework of global events, getting in a few good laughs along the way.
Emma LaSaine is a recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago, with a BA in Creative Writing. She is an award-winning nonfiction writer, Managing Editor of Habitat Magazine, and Production Editor of Hair Trigger 38. Emma is also the 2013-2014 Honors Research Award recipient. Her writing appears in BORGEN Magazine, Slacktivist, The Lab Review, and on her website, emmalasaine.com.