Its a ridiculously long title that fits a ridiculously tall tale. ‘The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared’ by Jonas Jonasson.
It all starts on the one-hundredth birthday of Allan Karlsson. Sitting quietly in his room in an old people’s home, he is waiting for the party he-never-wanted-anyway to begin. The mayor is going to be there. The press is going to be there. But, as it turns out, Allan is not…Slowly but surely Allan climbs out of his bedroom window, into the flowerbed (in his slippers) and makes his getaway. And so begins his picaresque and unlikely journey involving criminals, several murders, a suitcase full of cash, and incompetent police. As his escapades unfold, we learn something of Allan’s earlier life in which – remarkably – he helped to make the atom bomb, became friends with American presidents, Russian tyrants, and Chinese leaders, and was a participant behind the scenes in many key events of the twentieth century.
(Ta Amazon for this handy synopsis)
In the Interview with the Author at the end of the eBook edition that I read, Jonasson talked about his journey of writing this book. He wanted to write an uplifting story. Uplifting it may be, but its a little too far fetched for me. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some far fetched I do. But I also like a bit of substance to weigh it down, rather than a flimsy layer of a story that sticks over historical events somewhat haphazardly like a piece of rogue cellophane. Jonasson himself has said that the reason that Allan is 100 years old is so that he could fit in some of the main historical world events of the last century.
As robust as Allan has proved himself to be over the century of his life (surviving explosions, enduring psychiatric institutions, escaping prison, fooling at least five world leaders. Please!), I couldn’t help but read his story through the thick rimmed spectacles of the eulogist. The story jumps between the past and the present. With every shift to the present, I had to stifle an anticipatory grieving as he fumbled through his next caper and/ or full bottle of vodka. I don’t want to ruin the ending so SPOILER but I found it very unrealistic that Allan didn’t die in the end. Not to sound morbid but with the main character being 100 years old, I kind of expected the end point to be his death. But I guess that would have ruined Jonasson’s perky upbeat book.
I have a slight marmite dilemma with this book. One of the things that I can’t decide whether I love or hate about it is the incessantly upbeat tone of the narration contrasted with the absurd and sordid criminal activities that go on. A lot of the time it feels like you’re being read a cosy night time story, lulled into a false sense of security by the flowing cadences, the simplicity of ‘this happened so then this happened’, the perpetually cheery Allan. Then WHAM. An explosion. A conveniently deceased antagonist. An elephant with a penchant for sitting on gun wielding gang members. IT MAKES NO SENSE JONASSON!
This book was written in Swedish and translated into English by Rod Bradbury. I always find it difficult to read a translated book (no offence Rod). I get distracted by the fact that it is translated. One of the things I love about reading/ writing is playing with language, experimenting with the shape, sound and the rhythm of the words. I love the specific nuances behind a northern phrase that probably wouldn’t transfer to the southern part of our isles let alone another language.
A large part of a story is the way in which it is told. This is why we have favourite authors that we go back to again and again (Joanne Harris, Kate Mosse, George R.R. Martin, hello to you). If you take away the author and their style, yes you still have the story but I worry that this diminishes some of the intentions behind the story. Allow me to illustrate my point further. How many times have fairy tales been rewritten? With each retelling, the story is morphed into something very slightly different until we get Mr Walt Disney making a completely magical film called Beauty and the Beast in 1991 which nevertheless tells a completely different story to the original Belle et la Bête published in 1740. This is no way diminishes my undying love for Disney FYI. Also this analogy doesn’t really work because Madame de Villeneuve is long gone and if it were not for Disney’s version the majority of humans would never have known about this story. I think I just wanted to talk about my all time fave film…
So, yeah, The 100 Year Old Man... Didn’t love it. Probably won’t watch the film. Maybe I’d feel differently if I could read fluent Swedish.
We’ll never know.