Jonas Jonasson’s The 100-Year-Old Man who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is about… Well, the title says it all, doesn’t it? Allan Karlson escapes the nursing home just before the party for his 100th birthday and, on a whim, steals a suitcase at the bus terminal. Unfortunately for him, the suitcase contains a lot of cash, and this leads to a hilarious, utterly absurd chase that involves a hot dog stand operator, an elephant and a lot of unexpected twists.
We also learn about Allan’s life before the nursing home. This is where the comparisons to Forrest Gump come in — like Forrest, Allan is involved in a wide range of historical events, meeting such historical figures as Mao Tse-Tung (and his wife!), Stalin, Kim Jong Il and several US presidents. Like Forrest, Allan is unaware of the massive influence of these figures on world politics, but unlike Forrest who really is an innocent, Allan is an apolitical explosives expert. He knows how to blow things up, and he doesn’t care how his skills are used. This isn’t meant to imply that he’s a cold-hearted man who sells his skills to the highest bidder, but rather that he mostly just wants to be left alone playing with his explosives, and yet the world just won’t leave him alone. Take for example this episode with an immigration officer:
And the more the immigration officer got out of Allan, the less fascistic the Swede seemed to be. He wasn’t a communist either. Or a national socialist. He was nothing at all, it would seem, other than an expert on explosives. As for the story of how he came to be on first-name terms with General Franco, it was so ridiculous that it had to be true — he could hardly have made it up.
Since he had no better ideas, the senior immigration officer arranged for Allan to be locked up for a couple of months. Unfortunately, the months turned into years, and the immigration boss mostly forgot about Allan, until one day he found himself discussing the case with his brother when they met at the family farm in Connecticut for Thanksgiving. [p. 102]
The novel is hilarious, but as seen in the passage above, Jonasson’s humour is dark, at times satiric, and at others even disturbing. Allan’s life is filled with misadventures and random streaks of good luck, and it’s mostly Allan’s nonchalance at everything that keeps the story humorous rather than tragic. Jonasson’s writing as well has a sharp bite — dramatic incidents are immediately undercut by quick quips and mundane things are inflated to absurdity.
100-Year-Old Man is a fun, quirky read. Some parts dragged, and even though the ARC I received is less than 400 pages long, at times, the book felt longer. Then again, with 100 years to cover, the story is understandably packed with events. Still, I love Jonasson’s humour, and I enjoyed seeing history through Allan’s eyes.
Thank you to Harper Collins Canada for an advanced reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.