Many of you will, most likely, already have read this: it’s been one of the hit books of the last twelve months and its cover has caught my eye many a time on bookshops’ bestsellers tables. It’s a wonder that it took me so long to get round to reading it, because Hesperus are one of my favourite independent presses; I went through a phase of compulsively buying a whole variety of books from their Classics series. Now that I’ve finally had the chance to sample The Hundred-Year-Old Man, I can completely understand why it’s been so popular. It reads like the irreverent love-child of Forrest Gump and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, feeding off the contemporary hunger for Scandi-crime novels but transporting its readers into a quirky genre that’s all on its own.
This is one of the rare cases in which a book does exactly what it says on the cover. On the day of his one hundredth birthday, Allan Karlsson simply opens the window of his room in the Malmköping Old People’s Home and quietly absconds. With no real destination in mind, he makes his way to the nearby bus station and there, through his appropriation of a fellow traveller’s suitcase, inadvertently becomes swept up in the dealings of a criminal gang called Never Again. With the members of Never Again on his trail, determined to recover their suitcase, and a police inspector close behind them, determined to return Allan to the miseries of life under the regime of Director Alice, the scene is set for a (not so) breathless race for freedom. As Allan journeys across Sweden, he builds up a series of unexpected companions, ranging from a petty thief to the feisty owner of an elephant (plus the elephant) and an incredibly well-educated hot-dog-stand proprietor.
Pensioners are very rarely the protagonists in novels, and the number of centenarian heroes must be small indeed. Jonasson uses the indomitable Allan to make the point that no age is too old to embark on an adventure, and that we should be careful about stereotyping the elderly as having no world beyond the beige slippers and scheduled mealtimes of an old people’s home. What about the marvellous or strange experiences that these people may have had in the course of their lives? And so, running alongside the story of Allan’s present-day adventures is the unfurling story of his remarkable life. It features cameos from some of the most (in)famous characters in twentieth-century history as he rubs shoulders, at key moments of their history, with the Spanish, Americans, Chinese, Russians and Indonesians, not to mention brief spells in Korea and Tehran. Throughout it all he maintains his innate amiability, an eternal gift for being in the right place at the right time, and perhaps a significantly sharper intelligence than anyone’s given him credit for. Moreover, thanks to his lethal fascination with explosives, he exerts a greater impact on world history than many of the leaders he meets. My one regret was that I don’t have a better existing knowledge of modern history, because I’m sure there were lots of in-jokes that I simply wasn’t able to appreciate.
Jonasson (via his English translator Rod Bradbury) writes the book in a deadpan narrative voice that treats the whimsical with exactly the same matter-of-fact acceptance as the mundane. The entire story revels in its bizarre coincidences and it’s important to approach the book with tongue placed firmly in cheek. I must confess that, although I enjoyed the drily knowing tone at first, it began to pall by the end. (Maybe that’s the downside of being a quick reader: rather than having the book’s whimsy spread out over several days, I had it accumulate all at once, with rather overpowering results.) There was also something strangely cartoonish about it. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what made me feel this, but part of it was that, for all their backstories, the characters feel a little flat. The violence, too, would have been shocking if described in any other book, but here it has the feel of something from a Tom & Jerry feature. Terrible things happen, but are described so matter-of-factly that their horror is diffused. This is, after all, ultimately a feel-good story about the escapades a man has enjoyed during the course of his life; and those he still intends to enjoy, if only he can shake off those who want to put him back in the old people’s home.
Never try to out-drink a Swede, unless you happen to be a Finn or at least a Russian.
This absurdist fable careens happily around the world, suffused with an irreverent glee at the possibilities which history offers for exploitation. It’s hard to write a post of any length on the book, however, because much of the pleasure (and the occasional brief frustration) comes from the experience of reading it. Charming, in a subversive kind of way, self-consciously quirky and a refreshing change from most of the Scandinavian fiction you’ll see in bookshops, it’s the kind of novel that leaves you smiling; and how can I criticise that? It’s also left me with a long list of events and personalities to look up, in order to supplement my inadequate knowledge of recent history and to find out exactly how many jokes I missed along the way. A substantial number, I expect…