My Contemporary Fiction Challenge #2: Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-year-old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared

Apologies for the late review, I have been interning in London for the past month so haven’t had much time to write! But have read quite a few novels so hopefully more will follow soon.


This is the second novel I am reviewing for my contemporary fiction challenge. I picked this novel partly due to its endearing title and partly due to friendly recommendations. Also, I must admit I was kind of curious to read something distinctly Scandinavian but without the Scandinavian doom and gloom of The Killing.  It is light-hearted and silly: the kind of book to read on a rainy day with a mug of hot chocolate.

      The Hundred-year-old Man who climbed out of the Window and Disappeared is a whimsical biography of Allan Karlsson; a fictitious explosives expert and reluctant centurion. On his hundredth birthday Allan decides to escape his Malmköping care home (and the bossy Director Alice that runs it) in exchange for adventure. Thus starts a novel that intertwines Allan’s present day road trip around Sweden with his past impact on the biggest events in modern history. From a Siberian concentration camp to the top of the Himalayas; from socialising with President Truman to saving General Franco’s life Allan has done everything and been everywhere. His modern-day adventures are no different to his younger years. He impulsively steals a suitcase stuffed with cash from a gangster, meets some comical criminals (anyone reminded of that scene in Tangled? Cue ‘I have a dream’ scene) and goes on the run from the police in an old school bus with an elephant named Sonya.

I struggled to accept Jonasson’s absurd representation of modern history, Allan’s extreme influence over pretty much everything related to explosive warfare, and his ability to foil the police at every turn.  However the novel never pretends to be a serious commentary on modern history, old age or ignorance, it simply portrays the life of a funny old man who longs for adventure. Anyone wishing to read something light and fun will have their wish granted, and those hoping to see a Swedish interpretation of modern history, or a novel dealing with the psychological effects of age will have to look somewhere else…

My only particular qualm with the novel is the lack of empathy developed for the character Allan himself. I can see past the two-dimensional and clichéd whirlwind of characters Allan meets during his life, but Allan himself? The novel is like a Swedish reinvention of Forrest Gump without the moments of tenderness. The plot is absurd, and all realism and belief escapes the window with Allan and his pee-stained slippers…  Whilst working as a waiter in the Los Alamos laboratory he listens to scientists working on nuclear reactions, and happens to figure out from their discussions and from his own self-taught knowledge of explosives how to make an atom bomb! He is also sent to a concentration camp for annoying Stalin at a dinner party along with Albert Einstein’s idiotic half-brother Herbert… Unfortunately, the novel’s farcical nature leaves Allan as little more than a tool for amusement. There is no sense of his personal views or feelings and frequently his lack of interest appears disturbingly amoral and apathetic.

But maybe I am being too pessimistic here. After all the story is clearly meant to be ridiculous and unbelievable so why expect anything less from the characters within the story? One important thing to take from this book is the almost magical and mysterious way Jonasson shows old age.  Allan may be old but in spirit he is as cheeky and optimistic as he was in his youth. This novel reminds me how little I think of the lives of my elderly neighbours and the grey-haired, wrinkled strangers I meet at the bus stop. They have stories to tell, perhaps not as wild as Allan’s, but who asks? Old age is inevitable but growing up is not: just because our bones get old it does not mean our hearts and souls do too.

This novel was really fun to read but personally just not complex or vivid enough for me. Some stories stay with you long after you read them and this one unfortunately is not one of them.


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