Sometimes, you choose the book. Once in a great while, the book chooses you. The latter is what happened to me in regards to this import from Swedish author Jonas Jonasson. As my eyes wandered the shelves of my favorite bookstore, I was immediately drawn to the intriguing title. My wife who was standing next to me said, “I knew you were going to pick that one up.” I guess she knows me better than I know myself.
Originally published in Sweden in 2009, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is the absurdly comical story of centenarian Allan Karlsson. On the day of the 100th birthday, he makes the spontaneous decision to run away from the nursing home that he is trapped in with no plans for the future. His subsequent decision to steal a suitcase from a mobster filled with a ton of money leads to connecting with several other downtrodden characters and one increasingly ridiculous misadventure after another. With chapters alternating between Allan’s past and present adventures, it is the story of a rather unlikely protagonist being involved with important people and events in twentieth-century history. Think of Allan as Sweden’s answer to Forrest Gump. Despite being a rather slow and absent-minded man, it is Allan’s genius of explosives that leads to his key involvement in many events from recent history. From befriending Franco during the Spanish Civil War through playing a key role in the development of the Atom bomb to rubbing elbows with Mao Tse-tung, Allan bumbles his way into the history books. It is a very light-hearted story that stars a very simple-minded, amoral, and alcoholic character.
A European sensation before its English translation, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is a dark and ironic comedy. Allan is a truly unconventional protagonist, not just because of his age, but also because he is an alcoholic and senile old man who does not realize the enormity of his actions. Despite many thinking Allan’s philosophy of life is overly simplistic, one cannot help but see the wisdom beneath the surface. The fact that he does not realize the enormous repercussions of his actions is a quality he does share with the previously mentioned Forrest Gump. Whether releasing nuclear secrets to a Soviet physicist over drinks or forgetting overnight that he locked someone in a meat freezer, Allan (and later his friends) create comedy out of events that are actually quite morbid.
I think that’s actually where the fault of this novel actually lies. There are genuine moments when the author attempts to be sentimental that I think get lo st in the absurdity of the characters’ dialogue and actions. Perhaps it is due to the translation, but sometimes it felt like the novel was unsure of which path it wanted to take.Also, the alternating between present and past became a bit annoying at times as I found myself getting bored with a few of the flashbacks. Overall, I really did enjoy this work and would be willing to give Jonasson another read in the future.
As Allan was crossing an important birthday milestone, I was actually celebrating my own. I turned 40 the night I finished this book. I always try to uncover one important life lesson from each book I read. I suppose this novel showed me that I still have a lot of life left to live. If Allan Karlsson taught me one thing, it is that the adventure never has to end no matter how old you are.
I am thankful that this book chose me as its next reader.
“Things are what they are, and whatever will be, will be.”