The 100-Year-Old Man who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. Jonas Jonassen. English translation Rod Bradbury. HarperCollins Toronto (first English translation) 2012 (original Swedish 2009). Hachette Digital retrieved for Kindle. F; 7/14.
I’m not sure exactly what kind of a hero our Allan Karlsson is. You could make a case for fabulous geriatric survivor, fearless warrior, bad boy, underrated brilliant scientist, ironic silly buffoon. And others. The narrator’s tone is neutral although it veers into offputtingly cutesy (but never quite really gives in to that nausea). I finally had to admit I liked the book but it’s a bit in spite of myself.
Impervious-to-harm alcoholic Allan can’t stand the thought of his hundredth birthday celebration in a nursing home where none of his independence is respected, so he pops out the main-floor window and goes down to the bus station, where he encounters a young fellow with a suitcase, keeps an eye on it for him while the guy goes to the can, swipes the suitcase and gets on a bus, and by happenstance hooks up with another eccentric character, both of them discovering that there are many millions of dollars in cash in the suitcase, and eventually freezing its criminal owner (who of course comes after them) to death in a walkin icebox.
Many improbable adventures carry Allan through the narrative of his subsequent centenarian capers, and even more improbable events chronicle his past life: expertise with explosives, helping Oppenheimer invent the atom bomb, hobnobbing with Franklin Roosevelt and Josef Stalin, and much else of similar likelihood.
Why is Allan still charming? He knows no fear (he gets “tired of Stalin’s touchiness” when the famous mass murderer is in a rage at him), and also knows no arrogance (he is the janitor at the Manhattan Project and doesn’t think too much of his chiming in to explain to the nuclear physicists how to make the bomb go off), and he respects his younger and more capable colleagues in the present narrative as they try to stay one jump ahead of the criminals and cops.
The whole thing reminds me of a series introduced to me by my son-in-law Mark called Flashman (I haven’t reviewed it) where a magnificently pragmatic physical but not moral coward swashbuckles, fakes, and feints his way through historic battles and dozens of women. There’s never any doubt about this book’s hero’s invincibility (Allan after all made it to 100), and it’s the skill of the author to keep us interested enough that we suspend pretty overwhelming disbelief.
Alan (unlike Flashman) is strangely pretty much sexless. He was functionally castrated in early middle age in some sort of an asylum. I wasn’t sure what to make of that dramatic strategy, and wondered whether Allan’s charming humility would’ve held up if there had been a few casual conquests.
On the plus side it’s superficially a lovely hopeful rant reassuring all of us approaching senility that we can just carry on like invincible 17-year-olds straight into our second century. On the negative side there is an element of the kind of thing I hated in Plugged, although in this book the skyhooks that keep getting Allan out of trouble seem mitigated by that neutral Scandinavian humility. I guess. Anyway it’s ironic enough that I swallow it.
Unique. Fun. I never felt the hair rise on the back of my neck, but like the character I think the author wasn’t after much more than a hell of a good time. 7.7/8.0.