The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
I’ll admit to being a little late to the party with this novel: I had been seeing and hearing plenty about Jonas Jonasson and his writing over the past few years, but had never quite got round to actually reading any of his novels. However, with my dissertation submitted, I was looking for a lighter book to read so it seemed about time I found out what everyone was so excited about.
The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared follows the story of Allan Karlsson who, on the day of his one-hundredth birthday, climbs out the window of his old people’s home and runs away. If the premise seems somewhat bizarre at first (although very neatly summarised in the title), the narrative only becomes more so, as a series of increasingly extraordinary and coincidental events lead Allan to accidentally steal 50 million dollars; team up with a thief, a perpetual student turned hot-dog stand owner, a farm-owner, an elephant, a gang leader, and a lonely policeman; and cause a strikingly high body count for such a light-hearted novel. Towards the last third of the book, Allan is quoted as thinking that ‘such luck bordered on the absurd’ (p.265) which is an apt sentiment to describe the whole book: it is bordering on the absurd, yet it is inherently self-aware of that fact and is therefore incredibly readable and funny.
One aspect of the novel I initially had some doubts over was the dual narration of Allan’s present life and his past, expanded by Jonasson through flashback chapters. I am always wary of flashbacks: while useful narrative devices, they can often be used poorly, as an easy out for a writer to give the reader information which tighter writing might be able to portray more subtly in the current plot. However, my doubts over the flashbacks were settled when it became clear that one of the seemingly throw-away, comedic details from the title and premise was one which would allow Jonasson to use the flashback chapters to great effect. With Allan turning one hundred years old in 2005, his life spans the majority of the twentieth century; in continuing the style of absurd coincidences and inexplicable luck, Jonasson manages to have Allan present at many of the key turning points of the 1900s. As someone who enjoys history, this quickly became my favourite part of the novel as Allan’s life develops to find him haphazardly moving from one political power to another. From the Spanish Civil War, to Stalin’s Russia, to the creation of North Korea and South Korea, Jonasson is able to use his main character’s general disdain for politics to create engaging summaries of the crucial moments of the last century without falling into that trap which many historical novels fall into: losing pacing on the details. The reader is aware that the situations are much more complex than Allan realises, but the emphasis is on the life of Allan, not the incredible situations in which he finds himself.
The present-day narrative is initially the more entertaining: the characters which Allan picks up along his journey are wonderfully weird, and their interactions are fascinating as they attempt to balance their differing reasons for being involved with their shared need to keep each other, and the money, safe. However, the pacing of this narrative is much slower as it obviously covers a shorter period of time and, at certain parts, there is a danger of feeling these chapters are merely ‘filler’ chapters whilst the flashback narrative catches up to the present-day narrative. All of this meant that, by the close of the novel, I was much more enthusiastic about the flashback narrative than the present-day narrative.
This is a book which demands not to be taken too seriously: whilst there is a sense in which, as Allan finds himself in yet another major political battle, the reader is beginning to see the repetition as predictable and unexciting, Jonasson’s writing is engaging enough that the predictable absurdness of the plot is simply another comedic aspect of the book. Overall, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared is a great book to read if you are in need of something a little lighter or funnier. I would definitely recommend it, and will probably be keeping an eye out for Jonasson’s other novels as some future holiday reading.