Growing Old Disgracefully

Translated literature can often have a reputation for being worthy, solid and dull, so it’s good to occasionally stumble across a book which takes itself a little less seriously.  On which note, let me introduce Swedish writer Jonas Jonasson’s novel The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared, a title which immediately tells you that the contents are probably not going to be overly concerned with existential angst and the play of light across dusty tables.  I was (obviously) intrigued by this title and requested a review copy from Hesperus Press.  I didn’t regret it – this is a great book to liven up a bleak Melbourne winter 🙂

*****
The Hundred-Year-Old Man… (translated by Rod Bradbury) is about Allan Karlsson, an aimiable old fellow who decides to abscond from his nursing home hours before a party planned to celebrate his centenary.  Sprightly for his age, he manages to make it to the nearby bus station, where he sits down to wait for the next available bus (destination not important).  A man desperate for the toilet then asks Allan to look after his suitcase while he rushes to the little boy’s room.  Unfortunately, by the time he gets back, the bus has come and gone – and there is no sign of either Allan or the suitcase…

As you may already have guessed, there was more inside the suitcase than a few shirts and ties, and the rather angry young man is very eager to track our geriatric friend down, and possibly put a dampener on his birthday celebrations.  Allan, however, is not your average pensioner, and is able to get by with a little help from his friends – and Allan has some very influential friends…

The Hundred-Year-Old Man… is, to put it bluntly, a romp.  A picaresque adventure in the style of Don Quixote, the book alternates between the mad-cap adventures Allan and a motley crew of shady characters and animals experience, and sections telling us about Allan’s earlier life.  And if you think his modern-day adventures are fascinating, just wait until you hear about what he got up to in his youth…

After his father’s unfortunate demise over in Russia (don’t ask), Allan takes stock of his life, in a short passage which shows both the dry humour and sense of understatement that pervades the novel:

“…he understood that his father was dead, that his mother coughed and that the war was over.  As for himself, by the age of thirteen he had acquired a particular skill in making explosions by mixing nitroglycerine, cellulose nitrate, ammonium nitrate, sodium nitrate, wood flour, dinitrotoluene and a few other ingredients.  That ought to come in handy some day, thought Allan…” p.35 (Hesperus Press, 2012)

As you may have guessed, this talent will stand him in very good stead one day, particularly when some very famous men ask him for help 🙂
Allan is a wonderful character, a man with absolutely no moral or ideological compass who, left to his own devices, would like nothing more than to sit on the beach with just a comfortable chair, a bottle of vodka and the occasional opportunity to blow something up.  Alas, the twentieth century was a turbulent one, and anyone who happened to be caught up in the Spanish Civil War or the Korean conflict is bound to have little chance of a quiet life.  As Allan quietly floats from one disaster to the next, we really begin to wonder how he made it to the age of one hundred at all…
The Hundred-Year-Old Man… is an excellent novel, a wonderful example of dry, sardonic humour that occasionally had me bursting out in laughter, but it’s not perfect.  It’s not the most literary of novels, and I doubt it will be in the running for many prizes (although Bradbury’s translation is a very good one).  It could also be argued that it’s not exactly original in some aspects; anyone who has seen (or preferably read) Forrest Gump will see the influence of the American story running right through this one.  I also found that it lost momentum a little towards the end, understandable after the frenetic pace of some of the earlier episodes.
The fact remains though that whenever I put the book down, I wanted to pick it up again as quickly as possible to see what antics Allan and his friends were up to, which historical figure would make a cameo appearance next, and whether Allan could finally find a decent vodka to enjoy.  Not that Allan himself worries too much about any of these things.  Right to the end, he lives by the motto (the book’s preface) he inherited from his mother in his childhood:
“Things are what they are, and whatever will be will be.”
Sometimes, even as a reader, you just have to go with the flow…

7 thoughts on “Growing Old Disgracefully

  1. Alex – It's definitely worth a read, if only for some of the amusing cameos. One joke alone, from the mouth of a certain dictator, made it all worthwhile 😉

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  2. Stu – Not so much quirky as laconic, understated… Very British humour in a way 🙂

    Gary – I am, as you know, more into epics than comedy, but fun is good once in a while 😉

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  3. This one has been around everywhere in Israel for the past few months. I kept ignoring it because it really did seem a bit too silly (also, the Hebrew cover happens to be a photo of an old man in a pink bunny suit, which is hilarious but not exactly something that screams “quality”…), but your review speaks in favor of eventually picking it up. Still, there are other books I'd rather be reading in the meantime…

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  4. Biblibio – It's a fun book, and one to remember when you're in the mood for something light – it's not going to propel the author towards a Nobel prize though 😉

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