It seems that with the success of The Millennium Trilogy by Sweden’s Stieg Larsson and the recent popularity of Norway’s Karl Ove Knausgaard, there’s been a real Scandinavian invasion on American literary shores. One of my favorite books by a Nordic author is Jonas Jonasson’s bestselling debut novel, which came out in 2009. Titled Hundraåringen som klev ut genom fönstret och försvann in Swedish, it was recently translated into English by Rod Bradbury under the title The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared.
Described by Marie Claire as “The anti Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” this lighthearted novel shows that there’s a softer side to the Swedes while redefining the notion of what it means to age gracefully. In this case, rather than spend his final years languishing in a nursing home, main character Allan Karlsson flees through a window instead of showing up at his own birthday party, one that will celebrate a century of existence. Allan’s not dressed for the occasion, and he doesn’t have much money, but he decides nonetheless to take the bus as far as the change in his pocket will get him.
Thus, the eponymous centenarian embarks on a new chapter of his life. At the bus station he purloins a suitcase full of money and the misadventures that ensue drive the whimsical narrative. Allan becomes the target of a bungling gang of motorcycle thugs, and along the way he partners up with an interesting cast of characters, among whom feature an ageing scoundrel and a spirited woman with a pet elephant named Sonya. But as it turns out, these aren’t the only interesting people who have come into Allan’s life. He has a colorful—and explosive—history, so it’s little wonder that the hundred-year-old man winds up getting into trouble just minutes after escaping the old folks home.
As he bumbles forward on his journey, he is able to look back on the haphazard events of his past, and the reader discovers that Allan Karlsson is a Nordic Forrest Gump, someone who has stumbled through the highlights of 20th-century history. He has crossed paths with figures such as Francisco Franco, Joseph Stalin, Harry S. Truman, and Albert Einstein’s less inspiring half-brother—just to name a few. He has walked through the Himalayas, hitchhiked with Winston Churchill, traveled on a riverboat with the wife of Mao Zedong, and not only that—he was the one to first unravel the secrets of the atomic bomb.
Scandinavian humor is often said to be oxymoronic, but Jonas Jonasson’s novel does a good deal to disprove this, although it is achieved with a smorgasbord of wryness, irony, and understatement. Described by the author as “a hopeful satire on the shortcomings of mankind”, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared manages to lampoon espionage thrillers while parodying mysteries at the same time. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, but in so doing, it does invite readers to take a closer look at the past. It also shows that it’s never too late to start over.
Title: The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared
Author: Jonas Jonasson
Publisher: Hachette Books; Original edition (September 1 1, 2012)