Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee who prefers to be called Sir Alfred Mehran, is the man who has lived on a bench in Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport since 1988. In this book, a ghost-written account, he tells us about his life. At first, when he began living at the airport, his days were stultifyingly dull - in the mornings, he would eat fast food from an airport Burger King franchise; later in the day, he would eat more fast food. At night, he slept on his bench, often fitfully. Sometimes he was awakened by noisy passengers, or bright sunlight, or the fountain "spouting water 18 hours a day".
As the years went by and Sir Alfred became more famous, his days, if anything, became even duller. Excitable strangers began to seek him out to interview him. Wearily, Sir Alfred tells us about a recent interviewer called Donald Trask, a reporter from a radio station in Philadelphia. One of the questions Trask asks is: "Do you really have a Filet-o-Fish every day?" He also asks Sir Alfred the same questions that everybody asks: Why is he living in an airport? How did he get stuck here? How does he survive?
And Sir Alfred, in the quietly desperate tone he always takes, replies: "It's not normal, living in an airport for 15 years. It's a strange situation."
I had seen news reports about Sir Alfred, and trailers for The Terminal, the current feature film based on his life, starring Tom Hanks and directed by Steven Spielberg - and felt that his was, somehow, a quirky, cheerful story. But it is not. Sixteen years of living as a semi-public tramp, eating the same food, sleeping on the same bench, washing in the same public conveniences and answering the same dumb questions have had a profound effect, naturally, on this man's mental and physical health. He has, it appears, developed obsessive-compulsive tics. "The nail on the index finger of my left hand is longer than the rest of my fingernails; I rub it over my lower lip so that I can feel how smooth it is," he tells us more than once.
Why is Sir Alfred living in an airport? His story is insanely complicated, and made more so because he sometimes holds things back. Brought up in Iran, he came to England in the 1970s to study at the University of Bradford, which he did until his grant mysteriously stopped. When he flew back to Iran, he was arrested; somebody had spotted him demonstrating against the Shah. After a spell in prison, he was sent back to Britain, but refused asylum. He then drifted around Europe, applying for asylum in Holland, Italy, Germany and France. Later, he lost his refugee papers, and found himself in a unique position - if he left the airport, he would be arrested as an illegal immigrant. So he stays, in the hope of getting his papers back.
The story of Sir Alfred's papers gets more and more complicated and bleakly comic. It turns out that, in order to leave the airport, he must produce a physical version of a document which, for various reasons, has been sent to an office in Belgium. The Belgian authorities are willing to give him the document, but only if he picks it up in person. Which is the one thing he can't do: he needs the document in order to leave the airport without being arrested as an illegal immigrant.
As you read on, the story gets sadder, the comedy darker. "Every day," says Sir Alfred, "is exactly the same." That is not quite true. One day, the author discovers a cyst or boil on his head and lances it with the top of a pen. Another day, Dr Bargain, the airport's doctor, takes him on a night-time tour of Paris in his car. The doctor, it turns out, is a big fan of Herge, the creator of Tintin. Herge, says the doctor excitedly, was a big fan of airports." He thought anything could happen there: tragedies, jokes, exoticism and adventure. He was right."
Well, up to a point. Poor Sir Alfred, who suffered tragedies in his earlier life, does not have much to laugh about. In 1988, he was dying to escape but it seems that the prisoner, as the years have gone by, has become attached to his noisy, bustling cell. It is not all bad, he tells us grimly. Towards the end of the book, something positive happens - the Burger King closes down and is replaced by a McDonald's. "This is very good," Sir Alfred tells us, "because I prefer McDonald's French fries."