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An accidentally adventurous life

By Sally Bland - Oct 14,2012 - Last updated at Oct 14,2012

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared
Jonas Jonasson
London: Hesperus Press, 2009
Pp. 387

In this humorous chronicle of adventures in time and space, Swedish author Jonas Jonasson tells the story of an unlikely hero named Allan Karlsson. Born into a working class family in Flen, Sweden, in 1905, and orphaned at an early age, Allan attends only three years of school before entering the labour market at the age of ten. Since it is nearby, he gets a job at the Nitroglycerine Ltd. factory. This is the first of many chance occurrences which Jonas turns to his advantage: Although only a messenger boy, he soon learns to make explosives.

From his mother, Allan inherits enough money to start his own dynamite factory, as well as her life philosophy: “’Things are what they are, and whatever will be will be.’ That meant among other things that you didn’t make a fuss, especially when there was good reason to do so.” (p. 37)

Such stoicism, and the ability to adapt to almost anything, stand him in good stead as a chain of random events catapult him around the world where he finds himself in the company of major leaders of the 20th century.

However, before embarking on his global travels, Allan has to spend four years in an asylum after he inadvertently kills a man in one of his dynamite experiments. Here, he is sterilised for “eugenic and social reasons” since he is deemed not too bright, and his father before him had been viewed as a problem in the local community.

Starting with satirising this dark page in Sweden’s history when those deemed mentally deficient were forcibly sterilised, the author’s understated but biting irony, so typical of Scandinavian humour, literally explodes as the novel progresses.

The story opens as Allan is climbing out of the window of the Old People’s Home only minutes before his 100th year birthday party is to begin. Though he has no clear plan in mind, it is an event he knows he wants to escape, not least because he will not be allowed even a glass of vodka, a substance that has eased his way through many tedious and perilous situations over the course of a century.

Having made no preparations, he once again embarks on an adventure accidentally, but he enjoys every moment of it, making new friends, travelling around Sweden, and evading the authorities who are on his trail in a clever parody of a murder mystery.

In between the episodes of this new adventure, the reader is treated to highlights of Allan’s past which range from his participating on both sides of the Spanish civil war, contributing to both the US and Soviet nuclear bomb projects, involvement with both sides during the Chinese revolution, and much more.

In the process he meets Franco, Truman, Mao, Stalin and Kim Il Sung who either treat him with respect and admiration because they need his explosives expertise, or threaten him with death and imprisonment. But Allan is a survivor. Over and over again, he is able to slip away because he never loses his temper; he accepts people and situations as they are, and uses his common sense and dubiously acquired skills to get out of tight spots. He does what he can, then sits back and hopes for the best. Stress is not in his vocabulary.

With acute attention to details, Jonasson sketches scores of settings and characters, not all of them believable, but all entertaining. Relying on deadpan humour and sharp insight into human behaviour, he tells a rollicking story, or rather multiple stories. While Allan has a lot of fun, the story actually traverses the horrors of the 20th century.

Allan eschews religion and politics, never taking sides in the many conflicts he lands in, except for being loyal to his friends, whoever they may be at the time. Yet one senses that the author does have an opinion. With tongue deep in cheek, he pokes fun at pretentiousness, hypocrisy, arbitrary authority, bureaucracy, artificial boundaries, racism and all types of prejudice against those who are different, and other ills of the old and new world. He also shows how easily violence can erupt, and how easily it could be prevented if only humans would change their behaviour.

One reviewer in the Netherlands compared the book to “Forest Gump”, and it does have that element of a minimally intelligent person achieving so much by accident, yet Allan is not really a Forest Gump clone.

It seems rather that he experiences so much because he sees the world with fresh eyes, takes others for what they are, and is always ready to try something new. In short, he follows his mother’s prescription for life, but with an adventure-bent twist. His story is a joy to read.

“The One-Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared” is available at Aramex outlets.

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