Much like festive food, I often find bestselling books to be either too saccharine-sweet or over-stuffed for my taste. So I wasn’t expecting to be instantly charmed when I finally picked up a copy of Jonas Jonasson’s debut offering, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared.
But it had me at “hello”; from the first paragraphs of the opening chapter that paints – with less than 150 words – a vivid and hilarious picture of a cantankerous centenarian who has no intention of comprising his character in his old age.
“There was less than an hour to go before his birthday party would begin in the lounge of the Old Folks’ Home. The mayor would be there. And the local paper. And all the other old people. And the entire staff, led by bad- tempered Director Alice.
It was only the Birthday Boy himself who didn’t intend to turn up.”
An old man – Allan Karlsson – climbs out of a window to escape his hundredth birthday. He purloins a suitcase, hops on a train and what follows is both the explanation of his amazing back-story and an off-beat adventure for Allan and anyone who crosses his path. Without giving away too much it weaves together a tale of several murders, revolutions, the invention of the atom bomb, Reagan’s Star Wars, and – of course – one man’s mission to find happiness and preferably a glass of vodka to go with it. The novel’s cast of characters includes a hot-dog selling polymath, a cast of criminals, Stalin, Truman and Albert Einstein’s less gifted half-brother, and of course, Allan himself; a man with a gift – or perhaps a curse – for being in the right place at the right time.
It’s been called a “black comic novel that reads like a road trip with Forrest Gump at the wheel’ which it could be, if Forrest Gump was centenarian demolition expert with no intention of relinquishing control over his vodka supply.
Others have likened it to a darkly hilarious Water for Elephants (and indeed the book does contain a renegade elephant) but I think that fails to capture the charm, invention and capriciousness of this fascinating tale. I’m a little more reminded of Warren Ellis’s RED (Retired, Extremely Dangerous), and specifically the lighter tone of the movie adaptation, but with this book Jonasson has firmly established he has a voice all of his own and a remarkable story to tell with it.
Jonasson is a Swedish writer with a background as a journalist and media consultant. This book is his first novel and was released in 2009. By 2010 it was the best selling book in Sweden and by July 2012 it had sold three million copies world-wide and had a movie adaptation in the works. If you’re looking for a book for the festive season – whether it’s to amuse yourself or to appease an occasionally cantankerous soul stuffed with overly-rich christmas fare – I can’t recommend this book enough.