It was the title of this book that made me want to read it – we may all loudly claim that we would not wish to live to one hundred but I think we dream deep down of being the sort of centenarian who is fit enough to run off for high adventures. It’s also Scandinavian fiction which has been growing in popularity but which I personally have not read much of … and then it was also part of the Waterstones “Money back if you don’t like it” deal. So … here we are. Ahem. The hundred year-old man of the title, Allan Karlsson is faced with two options; attending his own one hundredth birthday party where the mayor and the grumpy Director Alice will be present or climbing out the window. He picks the window. As a centenarian, it is not easy to make a getaway, not least because all he has are his slippers but Allan manages it, buying a one ticket out of the bus station, stopping only to swipe a suitcase a young man has asked him to mind. Naturally, this sets off all manner of chaos and Allan ends up happily on the run from some hilariously unlucky/incompetent law enforcement officials.
Parallel to this, we are given the story of Allan’s long life, which turns in to an equally comical wander through the political events of the twentieth century. It’s funny – I saw one of the quotes on the promotional material make a reference to Forrest Gump and it is true that Allan has a similar ability to stumble across important political events but for myself, it really reminded me far more of Candide. This isn’t to make a poserish French graduate point but rather both books have the same sprightliness and relentlessly stoical attitude to misfortune. Forrest Gump had Jenny – right from the start we are told that Allan is an utterly uncurious person. He has no interest in what other people are doing.
Allan’s back story kicks off in 1905, in Sweden. His first job trains him in the use of nydroglycerine, an expertise that stands him in great stead as his life develops. Allan saunters through his life, spending five years in a mental institution after blowing up his house, then another few years are spent blowing up bridges for the Spanish rebels before saving the life of General Franco. Continuing in this outlandish vein, Allan gets drunk with President Truman the night he becomes the President, he prevents the assassination of Winston Churchill and befriends Albert Einstein’s illegitimate and incredibly stupid younger brother Herbert Einstein.
Allan’s airy nonchalance is the best part – it’s funny, when I looked up the book to see what other people thought, I read one side-splitting review that condemned the book for being ‘unrealistic’ and Allan too for his lack of compassion for his fellow man. My initial reaction (and I’m sorry because I have a lot of American friends) but whoever wrote that had to be American. Yes, it is completely improbable for one man to meet all the significant political figures of the twentieth century. Yes, it is rare for someone to remain cheerfully apolitical and unmoved by what goes on around them. That’s the joke. Not getting that this book isn’t playing by the rules of realism is like complaining that Father Ted is making fun of the priesthood.
Allan is far from stupid, but as long as he has easy access to decent vodka, he is happy to go with the flow. Allan’s five years in the Gulag (he annoyed Stalin) end when he decides that really, this is a long enough spell of ‘involuntary sobriety’, so he decides now is the time to escape, mirroring his decision at the start of the book/later in life when he makes his getaway from the nursing home. This earlier escape takes him to North Korea. There he is able to comfort the young Kim Jong Il who climbs on his knee to be comforted after the sad death of his Uncle Stalin, after which Allan manages to talk Mao into giving him money to go to Indonesia. It becomes clear that it is a combination of coincidence, improbability but also some real quick thinking and resourcefulness that have allowed Allan his longevity. Unburdened by political ideals or religion, Allan simply persists.
The Hundred Year Old Man is not at all the classic Swedish noir – but it does have a fair few bodies cropping up here and there. At one point, the hundred year-old Allan is driving across country with his new friend Julius and the corpse of someone they accidentally killed by leaving him in a freezer and then forgetting about him. Julius applies the brake too hard and the dead body’s head smacks into the windscreen. Allan remarks “That would have been very painful if the circumstances had been a little different” and Julius agrees, “There are undoubted advantages to being dead”. It’s a similar kind of dead pan wit to that which was found in Death and the Penguin. Still, this book is far more less morbid – when Allan is asked why the police dog appeared to indicate there had been a dead body near by, Allan pointed out that given that he was one hundred years old, it is most likely that he himself had the scent of death on him. Allan is non-confrontational to those he meets but his dry observations are quietly hysterical – he manages to talk his way out of some fairly hairy situations by the simple virtue of feigning total ignorance/actually being ignorant. Even at the age of one hundred he is able to do this impeccably.
It was nice to read something so light-hearted after wading my way through another grim Game of Thrones adventure (I’m on to A Storm of Swords now). This is a surrealist comedy – I learnt a few things about the events of the twentieth century and as I said at the beginning, I would also hope to one day be the kind of old lady who could take off, steal a big pile of cash and then go off on the road with a massive elephant called Sonya. It’s an entertaining adventure and should be taken as such – Jonasson has created an original and riotous story which gathers up espionage, chase sequences and generous helpings of comedy. This was an absolute pleasure.
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The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
Published by Hachette UK on July 9th 2015
Genres: Fiction, General
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