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Speaking for Ourselves

The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir who got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe

The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir who got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe

Sharif Gemie

 Migrant Voice -
 Migrant Voice - The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir who got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe

Can a comedy be written about the migrant crisis? This unusual book, by Romain Puértolas, a French author who worked as a border guard, just about succeeds.   It has two strands: the first is a light, comic story, centred on an Indian rogue. Armed only with a poorly forged 100 Euro note and ‘his famous gift of the gab’, he encounters a succession of European people. In this strand, the Extraordinary Journey has a light picaresque tone: events just happen, and Ajatashatru Oghash Rathod bounces between countries, from France, to the UK, Libya, Italy and finally back to France.   But there’s a sub-plot: the Indian rogue meets ‘real’ migrants, represented by a group of six Sudanese men, ‘on a journey worthy of Jules Verne’s greatest novels’. They are ‘the true adventurers of the twenty-first century’. They’re represented in more sober terms: the reasons for their quest are primarily economic. They’re caught between the countries around the Mediterranean, after travelling for a year on a journey that a passenger with the correct papers could have made in 11 hours. They encounter hospitable charities and hostile police.     Much of the structure of the main part of the novel can be traced back to Montesquieu’s Persian Letters (1721), in which an (imaginary) Persian travels through eighteenth-century France. Such plots allow the author to reflect on the idiosyncrasies of his own society.   Puértolas’s main point (and often the source of much the novel’s humour) is the arbitrary nature of Western decisions concerning immigrants and foreigners. Border policies are shown to be inconsistent, and the border police unfriendly and even inhumane.   Ajatashatru feels suddenly hopeful when he meets Officer Simpson, a Punjabi-speaking employee of the UKBA, but then is brought back to reality when Simpson curtly informs him: ‘Let’s be clear about this: I am not your compatriot’. The UKBA’s main aim is: ‘to send illegal aliens as far as possible from their borders’. These points are well-made, but sometimes seem to ignore the bigger story: the oppressive power relationship between the migrant and host country.   Much of The Extraordinary Voyage follows the strongly-established French tradition of the love of clichés (think of Asterix). In this work French women are sexy; Gypsies are prone to violence and carry knives; Indian mystics are frauds… The Gypsy taxi-driver with who Ajatashatru argues has a statue of St Sarah hanging from his rear-view mirror and plays a Gypsy Kings CD in his car. In another scene, Ajatashatru is described as looking as ‘conspicuous as the Great Wall of China on Google Earth’.   These easy references can be funny (again, think of Asterix), and certainly allow the reader to place the work easily in the context of the twenty-first century. But they also restrain the work, holding it in the category of a fable, and allowing it to be easily laughed off. The main character remains just a cliché: it’s hard to really feel for him, particularly as his story grows more unlikely.    In principle, there’s nothing wrong with laughing about the migrant crisis: it is a tragi-comedy, and its absurd qualities are worth highlighting. But is this right form of laughter? Probably not.    Romain Puértolas, The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir who got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe (London: Harvill Secker, 2014)