Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Books - The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

Published in 2009 and translated from Swedish into English in 2012, this is a book everyone seems to be talking about. I heard people mention it long before I read it, although as it happens what I picked up from other people was only the book’s name, and not a smidge of what it’s actually about. So I was rather surprised to find myself reading something that seems a cross between a history of twentieth century world politics, a black comedy, an adventure novel, a crime drama, and a Wes Anderson film.

This novel is very, very strange. In a good way. I think.

Allan Karlsson climbs out of his care home window on the day of his one hundredth birthday, and takes a bus as far as his money will take him. Several pages later he ends up on the run from the police alongside a petty thief, an eternal student turned hotdog stand owner, a red-haired woman who constantly swears, and a dog. Oh, and an elephant. Then, because this turn of events is of course not nearly bizarre enough for this strange novel, we simultaneously learn about Allan’s long and astounding life as an explosives expert, prisoner, spy, interpreter, general world traveller, and charmer of several historical figures.

 Along his travels Allan meets and befriends (or otherwise) anyone and everyone from Franco to Harry Truman to Stalin. I love these interactions with twentieth century history, however much they may blur fact and fiction. I like the wonderful randomness of Allan’s life. Jonasson uses historical irony wonderfully, my favourite example being that, in the 1950s, Cuba is said by all to be the least likely country in the world to go communist any time soon. I enjoy how Allan’s adventures span the whole world as well, with chapters taking place in Sweden, the USA, China, Iran, Indonesia, Russia, France, Spain, and various others countries. And whether or not you’re familiar enough with the twentieth century history of the world to appreciate all the historical ironies (I did draw some blanks), the history plot line remains interesting and funny throughout.

The book’s humour is immense. Jonasson certainly knows how to use irony and black comedy. By perusing a constantly light tone, and using brilliant comic timing and coincidence, the novel ends up being funny throughout – even when it maybe shouldn’t be. I like that we see from multiple perspectives throughout the novel, always knowing more than any one character does. This too is put to good comic use. The characters are also entertaining. I like Allan’s utter dismissal of politics, and Benny’s series of almost-completed degrees. We’re presented with a various unlikely images: the born again fraudster, the criminal for whom paradise is simply cocktails on the beach with a parasol, an agile and cunning centenarian – and an elephant on a bus. To me it’s the novel’s very ridiculousness that makes it so funny. It’s entirely unrealistic, and this anything can happen. But pushing the boundaries of plot, Jonasson creates a bizarre, impossible and brilliant story.

Yet there was something a tiny bit unsettling in terms of the book’s consistently light tone. I jotted down while reading it that the book to me lacks emotional depth. I stand by this point, but I’m not sure it’s really a criticism anymore. We never really see inside any of the characters’ minds, certainly never with any depth. The characters are funny, but not exactly psychologically complex. Ultimately, the book just wouldn’t work if they all just suddenly stopped to reflect upon how their consciences were dealing with their morally dubious actions. And yet I found it slightly odd that no one in the book seemed to really have a conscience at all. I didn’t feel emotionally attached to any of the characters. They’re funny, they’re interesting – but they don’t seem quite human.

But perhaps that’s not a problem. After all, the plot isn’t realistic, so maybe the characters don’t need to be either. I figure you always need to judge different novels by different standards, depending on their aims, their tone, etc. And as a huge Dickens fan I can’t really complain about novels with a few ridiculous characters or plot points...

Still, it did take me a little while to get into this book. I was hooked by about half way through, but not really until then. I tend to read novels that are more character-driven than plot-driven, so maybe that was part of it. Moreover, while the novel’s sheer strangeness is probably one of its greatest strengths, it can make it a bit alienating and confusing at the beginning. There are also quite a lot of characters to keep track of, most of whose names seem to begin with B (it took me a while to get around the fact that The Boss and Bosse weren’t the same person, although I suppose that’s a coincidence of translation). But if you for a moment think of putting the book down, then don’t: it’s well worth perusing.

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is, as its title suggests, by no means an ordinary book. It’s bizarre, surreal and often ridiculous, but I think that’s just the point. Besides, it’s also original, comic, fascinating – and, most importantly perhaps, great fun. Well worth a read.

Oh, and I’m rather excited to see the film, which happens to come out this Friday in the UK:

Greatest strength: Probably the novel’s astoundingly bizarre plot.

Greatest weakness: I did find it a bit slow going at first. It took me a while to get into.

Let’s finish on a quote: ‘Three hours later the two men were calling each other Harry and Allan, which goes to show what a couple of bottles of tequila can do for international relations’

Next week: Sense and Sensibility (the new, updated, version) by Joanna Trollope

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