The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, translated by Rod Bradbury
You might think he could have made up his mind earlier, and been man enough to tell the others of his decision. But Allan Karlsson had never been given to pondering things too long.
So the idea had barely taken hold in the old man’s head before he opened the window of his room on the ground floor of the Old People’s Home in the town of Malmköping, and stepped out – into the flowerbed.
This manoeuvre required a bit of effort, since Allan was one hundred years old. On this very day in fact. There was less than an hour to go before his birthday party would begin in the lounge of the Old People’s Home. The mayor would be there. And the local paper. And all the other old people. And the entire staff, led by bad-tempered Director Alice.
It was only the Birthday Boy himself who didn’t intend to turn up.
Thus begins a great comic caper and adventure. We chose this as our book group choice for April, and it was a great success, charming all of us.
As you’ll have already surmised, Allan is prone to act on impulse. He makes it to the bus station – buys a ticket for the first bus leaving, and steals someone else’s suitcase! He can’t explain why he did it. Later after getting off the bus randomly, meeting a chap called Julius, a bit of a scoundrel but who is up for an adventure, they open the case to find it’s full of money – only to discover that its owner is on their trail.
A brilliant caper ensues, with Allan and an increasing cadre of friends, who will all take a share of the money, traverse the country, pursued by the suitcase’s owners, and the police. Allan and Julius manage to remain one step ahead, while accidentally disposing of their pursuers one by one in some very imaginative and funny deaths that beat Stieg Larsson hands down.
However, after the opening chapters we start to alternate between Allan’s present predicament, and his life story – which is like a history of the 20th century. Having become an explosives expert, he accidentally blows up his house, and homeless goes off on a whim to Spain, where he accidentally saves the life of General Franco. He ships out to the USA where he meets President Truman, and accidentally helps Oppenheimer towards the solution on making an atomic bomb.
By now, you’re getting the picture, and we were all thinking – who will he meet next? Well, he seems to meet most of the 20th century’s key movers! It’s notable though, that the moment he gets close to these historic figures, and is invited to join in the politics, Allan jumps ship and goes somewhere else, maintaining his strict neutrality and, nearly always, manages to remain friends.
Allan has an engaging naïvety that is reminiscent of Forrest Gump, sailing through life having amazing experiences, yet remaining unfazed by it all. He is also a 20th century equivalent of Alfred Nobel, 19th century inventor of dynamite, initiator of the Nobel Prize, a man who travelled a lot, lived in several countries and learned many languages.
Although broadly a comedy, there are small pauses for serious matters now and then; managing to be committed as a young man for his learned propensity for blowing things up, Allan was a victim of the Swedish forced sterilzation programme. He was destined never to have an heir, although he never mentions this, he just gets on with life.
Allan’s story gave us plenty to talk about, and the imaginative demises for the hoodlums after the suitcase, and the encounters with all those famous people gave the chuckles. This is such a fun and easy read – if you’ve not read it yet, do take it on holiday – if summer ever comes! (8.5/10)
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The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, Hesperus Press, 2012, paperback 385 pages.