Making it up
The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared – Jonas Jonasson
Reading this book gave me the feeling that Mr Jonasson was writing to an urgent deadline and making things up as he went along. More often than not, novels give the opposite feeling, a feeling of profound heaviness as though the author has weighed every word against its alternatives over a period of years, maybe decades, in order to refine what it is that he or she actually wanted to say. This can work well, and it is fair to say that most of the ‘great’ works of literature are probably crafted agonisingly slowly by committed people prepared to dedicate an enormous amount of time to their art. However, as we would like to think this blog has show over the course of its two-and-a-bit year existence, books are not confined to any one type (or weight) and this particular book about an old man who goes AWOL from his care home is ample proof of the ability of literature to depart from the expectations of even the most seasoned readers.
Perhaps Jonas Jonasson was not writing to a deadline, but his plot unfolds like a bedtime story that has ballooned grotesquely out of proportion into something it was never intended to be. As though, scrambling desperately for something to keep his child interested, Jonasson stumbled upon the goldmine of twentieth century history in all its convoluted glory and blithely sourced it for the invention of preposterous anecdotes revolving around key geopolitical events and characters. It is in this way that the 100-year-old-man, Allan Karlsson, comes to meet President Truman, Chairman Mao, Stalin, Albert Einstein’s brother and an infant Kim Jong-Il. But the narrative, like its protagonist, remains both impulsive and utterly indifferent to its inherent absurdity: Karlsson’s life story develops as a sort of funfair ride through the 1900s, reminding us in the process that a lot can (and did) happen in 100 years. Embarrassingly, I still found myself having to do a lot of background research on Wikipedia.
“The president continued to describe military strategy, but Allan had stopped listening. He looked absentmindedly around the Oval Office, wondering whether the windows were bulletproof and where the door to the left might lead.”
In short, Allan Karlsson may seem a man like any other, but he is not. He is willing to drop his hundredth birthday party on a whim and embark on an adventure because he still has the legs for it. He rallies around himself a ragtag band of misfits and although it seems only a matter of time before the curtain comes down on his remarkable life, he defies convention much as Mr Jonasson does, carrying on as indifferent to politics/the opinion of others as he is to the fact of his geriatric status. In a world overrun by cynicism, Mr Karlsson is a man whose unquenchable lust for life is too inspiring to ridicule.
So what does it amount to? To be honest, the question seems obtuse when asked of a book that is essentially a shameless literary joyride over several hundred pages. There is a genuine sense throughout that caution was thrown to the wind, that the question “why stop there?” was asked at every step of the way and received the ecstatic response “why indeed!” – like Forrest Gump when he got to the end of his driveway – and perhaps this is how, at a stretch, it was meant to tie together.