The 100 Year Old Man who Climbed out the window and disappeared / Jonas Jonasson; translated from Swedish by Rod Bradbury.
Toronto: HarperCollins, 2012, c2009.
This is a crazy story, a worldwide bestseller that was brought to my attention by... my dad! He found it and read it before I'd even heard of it, and recommended it. So I relaxed with a copy over the holidays. It is frenetic adventure tale that reads like Forrest Gump, if Forrest had been a curmudgeonly Swedish explosives expert with the knack of falling on his feet.
It reminded me quite a lot of the Ukrainian novel The Case of the General's Thumb, in its reliance on black humour, violence and unbelievably absurd happenstance. It had the same casual criminal element as well. But this book is also quite different.
One hundred year old Allan Karlsson climbs out of the window of his nursing home on the morning of his 100th birthday party, wishing to escape the saccharine occasion. He wanders away and trusts to chance to make his way in the world. His first mistake is to steal a suitcase at the bus station, hoping it will have an extra set of clothes for him. It doesn't. What is inside leads directly to his life on the lam, escaping some petty crooks, meeting up with a few others (plus elephant) and creating a haphazard group of travellers that keeps growing, until they all escape to a tropical paradise.
That's the modern-day tale. Interspersed are memories of Allan's long past. He became a wanderer as a young man, after his explosive experiments came a little too close to a local notable. Leaving his small Swedish town he makes his way from country to country, coincidentally meeting up with world leaders wherever he goes. He encounters Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Harry Truman, Kim Jong Il, and countless other celebrities, like Einstein (Herbert, not Albert). He makes miraculous escapes from untenable situations, he maintains his sense of the ridiculous and his brazen attitude to any sense of privilege that those he encounters may hold. As he makes his way through life, he says things that change history, without his realizing it or being recognized for his input (for example, he makes a tiny suggestion when he is working as a waiter at Los Alamos...) The whole concept is ridiculous and yet amusing, though I did feel it was starting to go on a bit and was glad that the book tied everything up when it did.
If you want a light, yet absurdly dark, story, one which amuses with its historical references and the chutzpah of its main character, this is it. Full of oddball characters and a setting ranging over the entire world, it is a lively book that certainly has found a wide readership. I was entertained with Allan's shenanigans, and with his motley group of fellow outlaws. This is not your typical Scandinavian mystery. Thank goodness.