There is something refreshing about a novel that doesn't take itself seriously. The awkward, 13-word title of Romain Puértolas' tall tale is a tip-off that anyone expecting portentous phrases or a sorrowful spin into the dysfunctions of a discombobulated modern life (usually set in Manhattan, involving sad academics) should look elsewhere for their armchair entertainment. For sheer escapism that rewards suspended disbelief, "The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe" is a safe bet.
The turban-wearing fakir is Ajatashatru Oghash Rathod, a slick shape-shifter of a con artist who arrives in Paris from India with a 100-euro note and one goal: to replace his worn-out bed of nails with a new one from Ikea, appropriately named Hertsyörbåk.
Ajatashatru, pronounced, the author says, as either, "A-jar-of-rat-stew-oh-gosh," or "A-jackal-that-ate-you," has more than a few tricks up his sleeve, including paying a taxi driver with a counterfeit note, a deceit that sets into motion a caper of cabbie retribution that serves as a parallel subplot and an unexpected coda.
Exhausted from his trip to Paris, our fakir falls asleep in one of Ikea's stylish (but affordable!) wardrobes. The furniture is packed up and sent to England with Rathod inside, the first of several destinations in his incredible nine-day journey featuring, among other conveyances, a hot-air balloon and a Louis Vuitton trunk.
Similar to the serendipitous adventures of Chauncey Gardiner in Jerzy Kosinski's novel "Being There," the fakir is swept away to Spain, Italy and Libya. Along the way he meets a band of illegal immigrants, a sympathetic dog and an Italian actress named Sophie, who has a heart of gold. These chance encounters spark a transformation toward "the life of a good, generous and honest man which awaited him at his next port of call."
How to achieve this life change? First, through the love of a French woman named Marie and, second, by becoming a bestselling author. This unpublished author receives a 100,000-euro advance based on a few chapters written with his trusty Ikea pencil. Fiction indeed.
"The budding writer did not know the tricks of writing a good story, but in the few books he had read that were not about prestidigitation, he had noticed that, no matter how dark or hard the stories were, they usually finished with a happy ending, a hint of hope."
"The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe" achieves that writerly goal with entertaining and original style.
Stephen J. Lyons is the author of three books, most recently "The 1,000-Year Flood: Destruction, Loss, Rescue, and Redemption Along the Mississippi River." His next book, "Going Driftless," will be published in May.