I’ve just finished reading a truly delightful book: The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson. Written in Swedish, the novel appeared last year in a Hebrew translation as one of Steimatzky’s Books of the Month for its Book Club members. A few months later, the English translation also appeared. I have been reading it in English.
The book opens on Allan Karlsson’s hundredth birthday. Allan is a resident of the Old People’s Home in the town of Malmköping, a place he hates, ruled over by the bossy Director Alice, whose petty rules and regulations make Allan’s life a misery. In just a few minutes, his birthday party – to which the Mayor, the local Press and all the other residents and staff of the Home have been invited – is due to start. Allan decides, on a moment’s impulse, that he has had enough, and taking immediate action, without even bothering to change his slippers for a pair of walking-shoes, he steps out of the window of his ground-floor room into a flowerbed and sets out on what might (or then again, might not) turn out to be his final adventure.
At the bus station, Allan encounters a rather uncouth young man who asks him to look after his suitcase while he goes to the bathroom. The young man takes rather too long over his business and Allan’s bus arrives. Faced with the choice of leaving the suitcase unguarded or, (to put it bluntly) stealing it, Allan opts for the latter. And thus begins the protagonist’s surrealistic flight, pursued by the irate young man and his criminal associates on the one hand, and by the police on the other hand. During the course of Allan’s wanderings the length and breadth of Sweden, our unlikely hero makes some new friends and also acquires some enemies. Some of his pursuers eventually become friends. Others meet a sticky end (either by chance or by design) at Allan’s hands.
Interwoven with the picaresque tale of Allan’s flight, are chapters of flashback, in which we learn the story of Allan’s long and astonishing life, during the course of which he managed to blow up quite a few people (having become an expert in the use of explosives), took part in the Spanish Civil War (on both sides!), saved the lives of Generalissimo Franco, Winston Churchill and Jiang Qing, (thereby earning the unbounded gratitude of her husband, Mao Tse-tung), gave the secret of the nuclear bomb to both the Americans and the Soviets, (in both cases, more or less by accident), languished in an Iranian gaol and in the Soviet gulags (after inadvertantly offending Stalin by singing the wrong song), was nearly executed by Kim Il Sung, befriended Harry Truman and served as a CIA agent. We learn also how Allan (once again, more by chance than by anything else) brought about the collapse of the Soviet Union. All this – without our hero having so much as the slightest interest in politics. Some of his adventures can be put down to his inordinate love of vodka, some to his ruling principle of getting along with as many people as possible and avoiding conflict, (which too often leads him to take people at face value), others to his refusal to be fitted into the generally accepted pigeon holes by which we love to categorise our fellow human beings. Allan is, as he repeatedly states, completely uninterested in politics or in religion. He therefore has no problem in helping opposing sides in the same conflict. When he feels people are about to make the wrong move or do something stupid, he usually points this out to them, but if they persist in their folly (which they usually do), his response is a shrug of the shoulders.
Allan’s travel companions – a petty crook, an eternal student, an eccentric divorcee and an elephant named Sonya – are equally engaging.
Even at the very end, when everything is sorted out, and Allan is safe from further pursuit by either police or criminals and has found love and happiness, it is hinted that those very traits which landed him in hot water time and time again, are about to lead him into further adventures. In fact – one feels that the author has left the door open for a sequel.
I enjoyed this book immensely. It is black comedy at its best. As far as I know, this is Jonasson’s first novel. I, for one, will be looking out for the next.