- - Thursday, January 29, 2015


By Romain Puertolas

Translated by Sam Taylor

Alfred A. Knopf, $22.95, 320 pages

Its title is long and the central character’s name, Ajatashatru Oghash Rathod, is both long and tongue-twisting. Never fear. This book is actually short — a novella rather than a novel, though lots of white space between lines and chapters expand it to an ergonomically appealing size. It’s also an appealing read.

Ajatashatru — Aja for short — is an Indian fakir who arrives in Paris to buy the bed of nails he has seen in an advertisement for Ikea — the store that specializes in inexpensive furniture. Ikea’s Hertsyobak (Hurts your back — get it?) bed costs 99.99 euros and Aja, who is a faker rather than a fakir, has just enough: a 100-euro bill his cousin made for him but printed on one side only. Focused on his purchase, he leaps into a gypsy taxi driven by Gustave Palourde, who is indeed a Gypsy. Since the fake 100-euro bill is Aja’s only form of exchange, he uses it to pay the 98-euro fare for the circuitous journey Gustave takes him to the Ikea store on the most distant side of Paris.

Cleverly, Aja manages to whisk his fake money away from Gustave, and get inside Ikea, which has so much stuff that even beds of nails come in various grades. There he cons a Frenchwoman into buying him lunch, and finds a free bed for the night by hiding in the store after closing.

So far so very good, until Gustave discovers he’s been duped, decides on revenge, and pursues Aja with a knife. Aja hides in a wardrobe, which is promptly loaded in a truck heading for England. Inside the truck he meets a group of illegal immigrants from Somalia. Their leader Aseffa (I suffer) tells their histories of trekking over Europe in search of work in one of the “good” countries. England is their goal and it seems they are finally going to make it. But at Folkestone they are discovered and dispatched back to where they came from: Paris in Aja’s case. He hopes to reconnect with Marie, the generous Frenchwoman whom he now loves, but Gustave is still in a homicidal rage, and so once again Aja has to flee. Dogged by Gustave he eventually gets to Barcelona, Rome and Tripoli via transportation that includes a Louis Vuitton trunk belonging to a French film star, a hot-air balloon and a Libyan freighter.

Aja’s helter-skelter journey shows him glittering facets of Europe, ranging from Ikea’s automatic doors and its “dictatorial shopping experience” through the film stars’ filmy lingerie and on to the luxuries of Rome’s fanciest hotel. It is quite clear why its countries are considered “good” by those with the misfortune to be born on the other side of the Mediterranean, and why they risk so much to get themselves there. Aja shares their plight. He comes from poverty and must do what he can, legal or otherwise, to make a life. Fortunately, he has a visa from the French embassy, and even more fortunately, fate smiles on him even as it frowns on the vast majority of the illegal immigrants trying to get into Europe via ramshackle boats, the backs of trucks, and the luggage holds of airplanes.

Author Romain Puertolas knows a lot about the doings of illegal immigrants. The dust jacket reveals that his last job was as a police inspector specializing in document fraud for the French border authorities. Now, since this novel became a best-seller in France and has already been translated into more than 30 languages, he clearly no longer needs to man those chilly entry points where hope for illegal immigrants blooms or withers.

It’s easy to see why Mr. Puertolas’ book is so popular. It’s funny, occasionally hilarious. It combines farce worthy of Laurel and Hardy with socio-political satire that may remind readers of Voltaire’s “Candide.” Its narrative follows the paradigm of a thousand folk tales in which the adventurous hero is a lovable rogue who combines smartness with naivete. Consequently, no one need seriously doubt a satisfactory outcome for Aja, admittedly a rogue but an amusing one. In any case, he’s not beyond the reach of reform.

Readers can share his journey while relaxing in the pleasure of the witty commentary of a narrator who is, after all, well-disposed to Aja — though not inclined to let him off lightly. Nor do Europeans escape the narrator’s sharp eye. Near the end of the tale Aseffa reflects that “There’s always someone worse off . Black, white, yellow all of us are in the same boat.” Aja replies, in words that capture the theme of the novel, “I don’t know who is the worst off, Aseffa, but I am pretty sure that white people are not in the same boat.”

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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