Saturday, 13 October 2012

The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared

Have you ever had that conversation that begins 'Can you recommend one of those Swedish novels we always see you reading?' or 'I want to get into Nordic Noir that you're always talking about'? No? Me neither actually. Regular readers will have seen my Fifty Shades Parodies, and  will know that I am fighting a solo battle to bring good literature into my staffroom.

Nonetheless I have a great Swedish novel to recommend to those with such inclination. The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, is the first novel by Jonas Jonasson.

What a title! Jonasson came up with the title first and fitted the story around it, an unusual writing approach, but one that produced something quite unique.

There are books that whilst reading and reach the last hundred pages, you think 'thank heavens this is nearly over'. Equally there are books which everyone seems to be reading, on the tube, passed around the 'ballet mums', those that hang  around in the top 50 for months, only to re-emerge some time later when the sequel or the film/television adaptation comes out. 

For this book however I was disappointed to reach the last 100 pages, as I realised that my thorough laugh-out-loud enjoyment was about to end. It is the kind of book that I encounter perhaps once a year, that I have to tell people about and want to share. Last year incidentally it was The Breaking of Eggs by Jim Powell. 

Allan Karlson is One Hundred Years old on the first page of the book, in his room at the old peoples' home, waiting for a party that he has no wish to attend, so he does what is says on the tin, and leaves wearing his carpet slippers. 

What unfolds is a tale of death, gangsters, a hopeless police manhunt, and a cast of unlikely characters who bond through the combination of their personal circumstances and the most fantastical turns of fortune. One man dies twice, once in a freezer in the depths of a Swedish forest, secondly at the hands of an incompetent suicide bomber in Djibouti.  Don't ask: it needs to be read to be believed. Then there is the elephant whom Allan befriends, and which is involved in one death by sitting down and in another in which the victim isn't actually dead, though the mechanics of stopping a truck with a four and a half ton elephant in it should have rendered this a certainty. 

With me so far? Probably not.

Interwoven with this is Allan's past story, and here the fantasy goes into overdrive. The significance of him being one hundred years old means that he has lived through the crucial events of the Twentieth Century. As an explosive expert, he blows up his own house. Twice. This leads to spells in a mental institution, and on his escape to the Spanish Civil War, where he inadvertently saves the life of General Franco. Subsequent events take him to China where he befriends Mao, thence onto an encounter with Churchill, before events conspire to send him to Los Alamos where in serving coffee to Oppenheimer he reveals the secret that enables The Bomb to be built. Getting drunk with Harry Truman, encountering Stalin, seven years in the Gulag only to burn down Vladivostok, escaping via war torn Korea with his new best friend, Einstein's illegitimate younger brother. You couldn't make it up, but Jonasson did and it certainly works.

A work of complete fantasy, but one of the funniest books I have read for a very long time, and one I would certainly recommend. 

It is being filmed too, in Swedish, starring Robert Gustafsson, 'the funniest man in Sweden', but of course you knew that already. 

So if you would like something different in your Christmas book list this year, this is the book for you. Njuta av läsning!

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