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

I’ll probably tend to start most of these reviews with a quick explanation of why I decided to read a particular book, and this one had two main reasons. First of all, it’s got a fantastic title, and while you shouldn’t judge whether a book looks interesting by its cover, you should judge whether it sounds interesting by its title. In my experience, if it sounds interesting, it quite often will be (not always though). Secondly, when I looked at it on Amazon, it was only 20p on Kindle. Obviously my selection criteria are hugely scientific.

The plot is right there in the title: a one hundred year old man climbs out of his window and disappears, spawning a man hunt. The one hundred year old man in question is Swede Allan Karlsson, and, importantly, he’s very spry for a man of his age. There are basically two plots running concurrently. The first follows Karlsson on his adventure through Sweden as the police tries to find the missing pensioner. His adventure spirals out of control, with the impulse theft of a suitcase eventually leading to a national manhunt for murderers.

This plot is interspersed with the secondary story, which tells of Allan’s place in 20th century history. Seems he was quite important. These sections were great – even better than the present day story or theft and murder, which were good enough. From a young life learning about explosives, he manages to get caught up in a huge amount of 20th century history (think of a more globe-trotting and more intelligent Forrest Gump), such that by the end of the book he’s met (off the top of my head) at least twelve heads of state, and been on either side of the communism V capitalism divide just as many times. I could list many of his entertaining involvements in 20th century history, but I’d rather not ruin the fun of discovering them yourself.

While the two stories are generally separate, they are brought together pretty beautifully in the climax, a fairly long section which should be amusing to pretty much anyone. As long as you’ve either tried to come up with a complex lie or listened to a grandparent tell a story it should be pretty funny.

The humour isn’t just present in this climax, it’s a feature throughout the book (as you’d expect from a book with such a ridiculous title). The One Hundred Year Old Man… was originally written in Swedish, and I often find that books translated from one language often seem to be written in a very odd style (hello Stieg Larsen). That’s definitely not the case here, which probably means both the author Jonasson and the translator Rod Bradbury deserve a lot of credit, the former for many brilliant lines, and the latter for retaining the spirit of them in the translation.

Allan is a fun character. He’s a man who is utterly unfussed with what might or might not happen, and just accepts what does. It’s not quite “everything is for the best”. It’s more like “everything is”. He’s not without morals, he’s just never really worries about much more than keeping himself busy and wondering where his next drink will come from. Although amorality is often used to produces pretty unsavourable characters, Allan isn’t one of them. He’s just an entirely innocent and charming creation. He’s basically the most interesting granddad/great granddad ever (delete as necessary depending on your age).

I find that I tend to like characters that I can relate to, so it’s pretty noteworthy that I found Allan to be an extremely likeable character despite, as a 28 year old 20-something I had very little in common with him (two things: we both like alcohol and wearing slippers).

The other current day characters are all entertaining, and are a pretty varied bunch: lonely policemen, ambitious lawyers, a hotdog-cooking polymath, every possible kind of criminal from petty to serious, and an escaped circus elephant. All apart from the elephant get enough development to be able to grasp where they are coming from and what they want, which is pretty noteworthy given that The Hundred Year Old Man… is less than 400 pages, of which at least 150 take place in the past without these characters, and every character is at least deep into their 40s.

The historic characters also work pretty well. They tend to be vaguely amusing caricatures of their real counterparts, which means is both a useful shorthand for their characters and adds quite a lot of humour to these sections. A young Kim Jong-Il is a particular highlight.

It’s entirely coincidental that there are some points of comparison between this and my first book of the year (11/22/63 by Stephen King). Both are concerned largely with key parts of 20th century history, but weave another story in with that. The broad theme in both is also the same: any seemingly insignificant person can have a staggering impact on the course of the entire world.

There are differences a-plenty too. The Hundred Year Old Man… is tightly plotted and amusingly written, where 11/22/63 is bloated and dry. I referred to Allan Karlsson as being innocent and charming before, and that basically sums up the book as whole. It’s hard to read it without a smile. It’s a fun, entertaining farce.

While it’s not perfect (there are sections of the present day plot that drag and the characters make some odd decisions), and it is never really excellent at any point, it’s consistently very good throughout. I’d definitely recommend it to anyone. Especially if you can still get it for 20p on Kindle.

Rating: 8/10

Read if you like: farce, humour, 20th century world history, Candide by Voltaire (and if you read this book and like it, you should read Candide)

Don’t read if you like: I dunno. Sex and violence I guess? I can’t think of too many kinds of people who wouldn’t like this one.

Next up: The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood.

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Posted on January 21, 2013, in Books, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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