The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared is a mouthful of a title but it aptly summarises the events that trigger the first adventure of Allan Karlsson’s 100th year. The protagonist is in no mood to celebrate his 100th birthday with the Mayor, the media and his fellow retirement home residents. Instead, he decides to be the proverbial host who doesn’t show up to his own party and escapes through the window, “age and knees be damned.” Thus begins Allan’s journey marked with a stolen grey suitcase, tabloids and of course, an elephant.
Written by Swedish author Jonas Jonasson, the book packs a hundred years into 388 pages, during most of which the reader is literally laughing out loud. Bizarre situations are described in the most rational of tones, making The Hundred-Year-Old Man a festival of absurd humour. Originally written in Swedish, the book discredits a widely held belief that translations cannot deliver the complexities an author intends. The novel is quick-paced, never letting its language give into the deeper themes at play. It is set against all the major events of the last century, from the protests for eight-hour working days and “other utopian demands,” to the nuclear arms race. With detached amorality and “no political opinion whatsoever,” the utterly likeable Allan has a knack for being at the right place at the right time.
On his 100th birthday, Allan shuffles his way to the bus station in the sleepy town of Malmkoping and buys a ticket to whichever bus is departing within the next three minutes. Those three minutes prove to be fateful when a longhaired youth crudely and rudely asks him to look out for his suitcase while he goes to the bathroom. Deeming this lack of courtesy as deserving of a little punishment, Allan takes the suitcase with him when he boards the bus. Unbeknownst to him, Allan has just left with almost two million dollars.
A wild goose chase commences, comprising an incompetent police force and an almost equally incompetent criminal gang, both of which are bested repeatedly by a centenarian walking around in pee-slippers (“so-called because men of an advanced age rarely pee further than their shoes”). Along the way, Allan takes four strangers into the fold, all equally eccentric in their own right, but this mix pales in comparison to the people he has encountered over his one hundred years. Allan has wined with Harry Truman and dined with Stalin. He’s had vacations funded by Mao and pretended to be a Soviet Agent in front of Kim Jong-il. His proximity to world leaders puts him in a unique position in history and we learn of the critical role this Swede played in many great events. The narrative switches back and forth between episodes from his past and the convivial crime-fest in the present, with the effect that for Allan, the adventure never ends.
In essence, The Hundred-Year-Old Man is a celebration of life, not because of Allan’s longevity but because of the way the novel almost degrades death. The journey with the stolen suitcase is not without its casualties, one of which is actually the result of an elephant sitting on a man’s head after said man falls into a pile of its dung. It is a less-than-gracious way to go but the hilarity with which the episode is described distracts us from the fact that a man has just been crushed to death. Moreover, his area of expertise, i.e. dynamite, is the ultimate symbol of destruction, one which he has amply employed in his lifetime but has remained untouched himself. Allan assumes control over death’s deadline as reflected by phrases like, “life was exhausting now that he had decided to live a little longer.”
Allan also seems to be mocking death by being able to steer clear of it in light of his love for vodka. This love goes so deep that it serves as the single motivator for his prison break from the Russian Gulag where five years and three weeks of sobriety convinced him that “it’s time to move on.” Incidentally, he also believes that “half a bottle” of the good stuff could solve the Israel-Palestine crisis.
The novel culminates much like the feature films Forrest Gump or Catch Me if You Can, but the ending leaves the reader a little more wanting. Without giving away much, there is a disconnect between the detached asexual Allan built up over the novel and the one we encounter in the end. Perhaps Jonasson wanted to reward the centenarian in some way but the overall result is a slightly unsatisfactory ending. However, this is not to take away from the light-hearted, cheerful novel. The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared makes you wonder just how many ordinary people are essential puzzle pieces behind extraordinary events. Read this book, if not for the enjoyment then the succinct history lesson it provides. But in doing so, do not miss a valuable tip from a man who lived to be more than a hundred years (which may very well be the reason why he made it that far anyway): “Things are what they are and whatever will be, will be.”
The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared
By Jonas Jonasson Hesperus Press, UK ISBN 1843913720 400pp.