A comic touch on illegal immigration

A comic touch on illegal immigration
Author Romain Puertolas is in Singapore this week for the Francophone festival organised by Institut Francais Singapour.

Who writes a funny novel while working on the dead serious task of taking down human traffickers?

Romain Puertolas did, composing The Extraordinary Journey Of The Fakir Who Got Trapped In An Ikea Wardrobe in just three weeks on his cellphone in between his shifts as a deputy inspector with French border services.

Now a best-selling author who writes full time, the 39-year-old is in Singapore this week for the Francophone festival organised by Institut Francais Singapour.

"When I was a police inspector, every day, I saw illegal migrants of every nationality," he tells Life! in an interview.

He will give a talk in French at Alliance Francaise tomorrow and another in English at Books Kinokuniya's main store on Saturday.

"I said to myself: I could be them.

I'm lucky because I'm French, I can get a visaquickly to go anywhere, but they have to cross the border illegally to get money because they can't get work in their own country.

The guy in front of me, I could be him if I were born in Africa."

The Extraordinary Journey Of The Fakir Who Got Trapped In An Ikea Wardrobe (or L'Extraordinaire Voyage Du Fakir Qui Etait Reste Coince Dans Une Armoire Ikea in French) describes the misadventures of Ajatashatru Oghash Rathod, a man from India, who is visiting France legally to buy a bed of nails from Ikea - the Hertsyorbak series, one of many punny jokes in the text.

The hero inadvertently becomes an illegal immigrant to other countries, such as Italy and Libya, when he gets stuck in a wardrobe at the store.

Both hilarious and heart-warming, the novel takes potshots at stereotypes and racial intolerance in Europe.

It is a powerful call for understanding immigrants, both legal and illegal, and has sold more than 200,000 copies in Puertolas' native France alone since it was published last year, not counting the other 30-odd countries it has been published in.

"It's the eighth novel I've written - I write fast - but the other seven were not published.

It's been one year and three or four months now and I still don't believe it," he says.

Puertolas began writing fiction when he was seven.

"My ordinary life, the quotidian, was not enough for me," he says, though it included a roving childhood in the south of France, following the drum with his single mother, a French army administrator.

He began working as a DJ at age 14 and gave up the travelling musician life at 25 to become a linguist.

He has a master's in Spanish and French literature from the University of Grenoble and, though he wanted to teach Spanish in France, ended up moving to Madrid to teach and translate French.

There, he met his wife Patricia, a paediatrician - they have two children Leo, three, and Eva, one - and worked in air traffic control before moving back to France to work with border services and investigate fake passports and work permits.

His first novel has been such a snowball success that Ikea demanded a disclaimer in every book to prove the author is not authorised by or affiliated with the Swedish group.

"No, I didn't receive any furniture from them," he says, laughing.

His second published novel references another popular icon: La Petite Fille Qui Avait Avale Un Nuage Grand Comme La Tour Eiffel, or The Little Girl Who Swallowed A Cloud As Big As The Eiffel Tower, was released in France in January and has already been sold to some 16 countries (a date for the English edition has not been set).

One wonders whether his propensity for long titles comes from the success of other comic European novels such as Swedish author Jonas Jonasson's The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden (2014) and The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared (2009), which was made into a film last year.

"I've always liked big titles.

I'd like you to be in another world even when you read the title," Puertolas says.

"When you read the title, it's like a spell, a magic phrase. You read it out and you're already in my fantasy."

The Extraordinary Journey Of The Fakir Who Got Trapped In An Ikea Wardrobe by Romain Puertolas (2014, Random House, $17.95) is available at Books Kinokuniya.

Book it

THE EXTRAORDINARY JOURNEY OF ROMAIN PUERTOLAS IN SINGAPORE

Where: Alliance Francaise, 1 Sarkies Road

When: Tomorrow, 7pm

Admission: E-mail cdrfrance@alliancefrancaise.org.sg

Info: Talk is in French

Where: Books Kinokuniya Main Store, Ngee Ann City

When: Saturday, 2pm

Admission: Free

Info: Talk is in English

akshitan@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Mar 5, 2015.
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