Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Comical Seriousness from Sweden

Jonas Jonasson’s first novel, “The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared”(Hesperus Press, 2012) is “sui generis”, unlike any book I have ever read, with a biography unlike any other writer I have studied. Born in small town Sweden in 1961, he studied languages at the University of Gothenberg,and then he became a journalist, first for a local paper, Smälandsposten, and later for a national journal Expressen. 

Finally he became a media advisor and head of a TV production company. Burned out after twenty years in all that media, he sold his companies and moved with his small family in a Swiss village. Three years later he published this strange novel which became an international bestseller, accessible in 38 world languages, including a film version about to be released. 

Strangely, my wife gave me this German smash for Xmas and I picked it up a dozen times for a quick read, but immediately put it down! Eventually I agreed with the German critic who called it “a mixture of a road movie and a picaresque novel in modern packaging.”

The beguiling anti-hero is one Allan Karlsson whose specialty is using dynamite to enable mining. The book opens with the overbearing old persons home directress. And Allan is about to be the victim of a centennial birthday party. He escapes, to run into a pair of bandits who are stealing a suitcase full of cash they have in turn stolen from local crooks. 

The pair takes too long a break on the train escape they have started, so Allan is suddenly a very rich man. And a local incompetent chief of police so confuses his local prosecutor that their stupidities are a regular feature as the old man goes his own ways. Eventually he joins a small group of excons who unwittingly amuse the reader as they stumble their way ahead of the cops.

But the central line of action that introduces you to the hundred years of his marvelous life is his skill as a designer of bombs that involves him in all the great military crises of the twentieth centura. And he revels in helping the incompetent leaders of the twentieth century: Spain’s Franco, Harry Truman who sends him to Las Alamos, New Mexico to aid the builders of the atomic bomb, Stalin invites him to Moscow to create an atom bomb for the Soviets, and he blows up bridges as Chiang Kai Chek chases Mao on the Long March. 

His interpersonal confrontations of celebrities like Lyndon Johnson are hilarious as our hero’s skills as a blower upper are exaggerated for comic affect. He is as skillful in humbling these twentieth century Big Wigs as he is in designing explosions. 
There is a charming interview with the author to ease you out of his crazy story.

Are you just as funny in everyday life?”

His reply: I think it was Mark Twain who said something like this: ”To read an interesting book and then to meet the author in question, is like first having a great goose liver pate´ only afterwards to meet the goose. (I am sorry, Mr. Twain, if I remembered this quote incorrectly." (p.393).

This is followed by two pages of Discussion Questions. Man, I would give a hundred Euros to be set loose with those hints in a college classroom.

The author now lives with his kids, cats, and chickens on the Swedish island of Gotland. Where has been writing another idiosyncratic novel. I can hardly wait!

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