After reading “The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe”, a witty and amusing yet awareness-raising novel about the issue of emigrants in Europe, clichés and ethnic perceptions, I was dying to meet its author, French writer Romain Puertolas. I had this opportunity, at the end of 2014, at the International Iași International Festival of Literature and Translation. One of the most relaxed, amusing and eye-opening interviews, I had the pleasure to take.
SemneBune: Welcome to FILIT. I’m so glad to finally meet you. I have read your book in one night or two and I find it fascinating. However, you stating at one point that you escaped reality in this book baffled me. You did not escape reality, given the hot subjects covered by the novel.
R.P.: I did escape reality when writing about the travel and the adventures; indeed, the question of illegal migration is reality, because that was my work…
SB: And it’s quite deep…
R.P.: And I put together all the things that I saw or I heard about and that’s reality, yes, of course.
SB: The book is all the more baffling since I discovered a narration written by a writer from a welcoming country, but the perspective of the main character is that of an emigrant. You said that had you been born in Africa, you would emigrate to America, not France or Europe, in general. Why?
R.P.: I chose the United States since this place is the ultimate destination, the American Dream, everything. I do not know whether I would emigrate to Europe. America seems to be the perfect place to emigrate and people choose it due to the better possibilities it provides. When compared to Europe, America is well off.
SB: You are telling me that, for the Europeans, America is the dream, while Africa perceives Europe as the ultimate destination. As we go westward, that space becomes bigger and better. And we both know this is not actually true.
R.P.: No, that’s what we think, maybe that’s not the truth. But, when working for the Border Police, I analyzed all the migration flows. I can tell you that, for example, people going to Australia do not return to Europe, afterwards. Why does that happen?
S.B.: Actually, that’s a different kind of dream. New Zealand and Australia are rather new on the migration map. As far I’ve seen it for the past years, France, Italy, kind of stopped being destination points for emigrants, since the relationships with the immigrants are rather tense. While visiting in the North part of Italy (near Turin), I noticed that the locals had problems adjusting to the wave of immigrants. I understand the reasons behind their reticence, but I couldn’t help judging them for what I instantly labelled as narrow-mindedness. Your book is welcomed, but I have to admit that your choice of stereotypes was rather bold. Did you get to experience unusual reactions from various associations and people saying “Oh my god, you shouldn’t speak like that about gypsies”?
R.P.: No, there was no reaction about that. But that’s a very small thing, you know. When I was told I was going to be published, I said to myself: “They are going to kill me, in France!” since when you say something in France, it is pretty easy to be seen as racist, you really cannot say anything.
SB: I expected the French to love you, because you mocked the British. And you mocked them badly, at one point. Reading the part with the spoon and the castanets, I laughed my eyes out, for half an hour.
R.P: That’s the point. Everyone is a source of humour and humour is the most powerful of weapon because it never lacks of ammunition. Literature allows me to mock all race and ethnicity-related clichés, so I mocked the gypsies, the British, the Spanish and the French…
SB: You mocked the French, too. The chapter about the Ikea adventure, and the passage about the cameras, that was quite…
R.P: That was quite Swedish… Yeah, this is Ikea, so it is Swedish thing.
SB: Ok. Let’s play with the Swedish.
R.P: I criticize everybody and I criticize myself as well. Sometimes, I like to say “oh-la-la, the French are so arrogant, or the Spanish are like fiesta”. I enjoy playing with the stereotypes.
SB: Let’s be honest, we are all stereotypes.
R.P.: Yeah. And the smart thing to do is to understand that in my book I just talk about all the stereotypes I encountered, and about ethnicities, without discrimination. I am a huge fan of people, in general.
SB: And your book is the hot thing, in a hot zone, right now. You’ve been translated into, what, 34 languages?
R.P.: Yes, into 34 languages and published in 40 countries.
SB: So you have 40 countries and no reaction towards your playing stereotypes? That’s amazing. How come?
R.P.: There was little reaction and it came from the United States. But the States are very special.
SB: Very special…
R.P.: The book wasn’t released in the United States, after all. It’s going to be released in Germany. So we wait for the readers’ reaction. By the way, do you know that the British publishing houses wanted to remove the blowjob part?
SB: You mean the part referring to the rough childhood and the abuse?
P: I refused to remove the passage. Why should I? And it’s all because there were some cases in England, discussed in the media.
SB: In this case, you shouldn’t have released it in Italy.
R.P.: However, this is no reason to ignore such situations. So no, I am not going to cut it, because they have some problems with the paedophiles. Cases of paedophilia have been recorded in other countries, too; therefore it is very important to discuss the impact of such abuse…
SB: This is why I loved the book, it is an honest book and a quite daring novel, truth be told. However, there is something I didn’t like. Can I say it?
R.P.: Of course.
SB: The ending. Because he was so happy.
R.P: I don’t know. A lot of people told me: “I don’t like the happy end.”
SB: He was too happy. I mean the guy went through so much, and he was about to be stabbed…
R.P.: I know that most the movies we see have a happy end. Maybe the fakir should have ended differently, but he had a lot of intense events in his life, firstly as a child, then as grown man, when he was a swindler, then his journey to Europe, being treated like a clandestine. He deserved a happy ending.
SB: Because he changed, not because he went through all of that. Because he changed.
R.P.: It was some sort of reward. When you are true to something in your life, you deserve to have a reward. So that was my reward for him. And I like happy endings.
SB: So you married him to a French woman. (editor’s note: he bursts into laughter)
R.P.: He shouldn’t have a happy end, because that’s the end. He should have happy life.
SB: By the way, that was exactly my point when I was talking about fairytales with a friend of mine. Have you noticed that, normally, fairytales end like this: the prince arrives, he saves the princess, then they get married, and then they live happily ever after. And nobody knows what that means, because the fairy tale ends.
R.P.: This is the Romanian fairytale. In France, we say they have a lot of children and they live happy forever. That’s the end.
SB: So you add the children, and they live…
R.P.: And the Spanish one, too. That’s the end of all the fairytales.
SB: So you add the children and nobody talks about their married life.
R.P.: Yeah, they are happy for ever.
SB: Happy for ever does not define a married life.
R.P.: Happy. You are happy, you are happily married. You are married and you are happy.
SB: Yeah, but still, you argue and life’s complicated.
R.P.: You want a sequel?
SB: I need a sequel, I want to read about Snow White and Cinderella, after they get married.
R.P.: That’s a good book to write.
SB: Don’t you think? I mean, getting married is the ideal in life. The end. And then what? What happens to their life? I want to read the sequel.
R.P.: And in the Fakir, he marries at the end, and that’s the end.
SB: Exactly. And then what?
R.P.: There is the return of the Fakir.
SB: Is there a…. Are you kidding?
R.P: I have written about 200 pages. That’s the sequel and the prequel, at the same time. You are going to witness the youth of the fakir, and you’ll understand how he became a fakir, when he was a young boy.
SB: So there is going to have a really really sad part. I remember his childhood, in the novel. It was the embodiment of depression. This book really needs a sequel.
R.P: He’s a very optimistic man.
SB: He’s awesome, I loved him and he’s a great character, because he’s essentially a good man.
R.P.: So must you see the movie. The movie is amazing.
SB: There is a movie?
SB: I didn’t get to see the movie yet.
R.P.: No, because we have just finished the screenplay. I wrote the screenplay, with a co-writer, and the story is very nice. I love it. It should be different from the book. We have a lot of love stories…
SB: Your eyes sparkled. I swear to God I am going to write that down. When you said “We’ll have a lot of love”, your eyes sparkled. When is it going to be released?
R.P.: We are at the beginning of the process, so it will take a couple of years, maybe.
SB: Actually, it is awesome for me, because I am about to write the review of your book, and I want to prompt people to read the book before they see the movie.
R.P.: So they have the time.
SB: That’s my big problem. People watch the movies and they lose interest in reading the books. Talking about books, tell about your upcoming novel.
R.P.: My next novel is going to be released in January 2015. The 14th of January.
SB: Are you really a woman in that novel? (editor’s note: the author giggles)
R.P.: Yes, I am a woman. My character is a woman. The title of the novel is “The little girl who swallowed a cloud as big as the Eiffel Tower”
SB: You love long titles, don’t you? I had to write the title down, because I was afraid I might forget it, by the time we finished the interview.
R .P.: And I am working on another novel, which is a surprise.
SB: Can I write about it?
R.P.: Yes, you can. Everybody knows it, except for my publisher. My publisher doesn’t read press.
SB: The first Fakir, the movie for the first Fakir and then the second book, a third one on the way, the return of the Fakir. A wife and two kids. You seem to have your hands full. Do you still work for the Police?
R.P.: No, no. I can’t. I had to put it aside. I was on television every day or on the radio. And now I’m every week I’m in a different country, I cannot go to work now.
SB: How did you get your book published? Were you discovered by someone or did you just go one day with you book in your hand: “Please, read my book and publish it for me?”
R.P.: I sent my new script by post to my publisher, to the French publisher and that was that.
SB: You are one lucky writer. Speaking of changing luck, I’ve read your bio a few days ago. You went from being a songwriter and singer to working in the police, I heard you say that you get bored easily. What happens if you get bored with literature?
R.P.: I don’t know, I’ve written all my life, it’s a passion that does not seem to die. I do not see it as a profession. I can never get bored with reading, so maybe the same thing goes for writing. But maybe one day I will get bored and find another thing.
SB: Painting, flying…
R.P: That’s the only thing I didn’t do – painting – because I am not good at it. I can make a movie, write a text, sing a song, but I cannot draw a thing for the life of me.
SB: How was your Romanian experience so far? Did you get to enjoy the city?
R.P.: With the back and forth, event after event, I generally don’t get to see almost anything. I’m like a steward. Stewards know only the airports. That’s the same for me. I don’t have the time. Take today, for example, after we finish this interview (around 6:30 in the evening), I’m going to eat and I want to write something and I have work on Facebook, handling the social media and PR problems. And I’ve got so many mails, from all my publishers, so that’s a big amount of work. And afterwards I go to bed. And tomorrow I’m flying back. And that’s my Romanian experience.
SB: In think this my exit cue. I’m really glad you took your time to talk to us. It was real pleasure to meet you and I am dying to read your next novel and to watch the movie version of the Fakir’s adventures.
R.P.: Thank you! We’ll definitely talk again, at the next book fair.