Review of 'The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared' by Jonas Jonasson

Published by Hesperus Press.

I purchased this in Kindle format, not only because the title made me laugh, but it had been reduced to 20p in one of Amazon’s deals.  At that time,  I had no idea that it had sold 20 million copies, or that, according to Hesperus Press, it is about to be made into a film.

As I’d never read a book by a Swedish author before, or visited Sweden, part of this novel’s appeal was that it opened a window into an unfamiliar country and its residents.  The author kept referring to towns and cities, which would probably be as meaningful to Swedish readers as stations on a commuter line in the Home Counties would be to me and fellow Brits.   I have to confess, Dear Reader, that I didn’t look up the Swedish places on the map.  I didn’t want to, as their exotic names and etymological composition had a charm of their own.

What a read!  What a rollercoaster of a ride!  Start suspending your disbelief from the first page.

The story starts in a gentle fashion, with an elderly man, Allan Karlsson, frustrated by the restrictions of living in an old people’s home. However, the next few scenes set the tone of this work, which was what literary critics might call ‘absurdist’  – although at the humorous end of the ‘absurdist’ spectrum .  It’s what I have always thought of as ‘off your trolley’ writing (my term entirely), where extreme events are connected by a daft logic.  At the local bus station, Allan meets a member of a violent criminal gang lugging around a heavy suitcase and in need of the loo – as you do.  As the cubicles are too small for the suitcase, the crim asks Allan to take care of it, only Allan’s bus arrives while the crim is enthroned.  Well, what would you do?

The first element to this novel concerns Allan’s bolt for freedom and the oddballs he collects around him, among them an escaped circus elephant.  The second is the story of Allan’s colourful life told in flashback; Allan was able to use his skills in making explosives, which he had acquired early in life, to get out of tight spots and he had dealings with Franco, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung and many other dictators around in the twentieth century.   Even though the two elements were interspersed between chapters, I was never confused or lost.  Both plots made sense and were tidy and complete.

In many other of my reviews, I’ve noted an ‘mc syndrome’, whereby the mc, being used as a window for all other characters, ends up characterless himself or herself.  However, in this book, the ‘Hundred Year Old Man’ is the one with stacks of  character – cool thinking, resourceful and his thinking ‘off the wall’.  Allan will do what is necessary to survive – even if that means, as it did on one occasion, blowing up Vladivostok.  None of the others are as distinctive as Allan and all tend to loom large for a few chapters then lapse into the background.  Julius, for instance, who figured prominently in the initial stages, was hardly mentioned later on.  Also, rather like an Enid Blyton school-story, all the people in the book became ‘nice’ in the end, even the leader of the criminal gang and the police inspector.

So, would I recommend ‘The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared’ for you to read and enjoy?  Definitely.  And to extend your writing skills?  Yes, to observe how Jonas handled a very complex plot and created an unusual mc.

And, do I think it’s fair that any author should feel pressured to sell his work for 20p, as part of any promotion, run by a multinational corporation which – famously – doesn’t pay tax?  Emphatically, No.  I have to confess that I’m now ashamed of buying it at that price.

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