Swedish author Jonas Jonasson’s novel, translated into English by Rob Bradbury, The 100 Year-Old Man who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared (2012), is a farcical tale featuring Allan Karlsson, a spry dynamite expert who escapes from an old folks’ home shortly before his 100th birthday party in 2005. Without a plan, Allan heads to the bus station and inadvertently detonates a series of incredible, humorous events. Coincidences abound, but rather than resolving the conflict, they thrust the characters deeper into the fray.
The immediate premise of Allan’s story is believable: that an aging man would want to escape from his nursing home, hoping that it will not be his “last residence on Earth.” Elderly residents slip past nursing home staff and disappear with some frequency (it’s called wandering or elopement), sometimes with tragic results for which nursing homes may be liable for negligence. That’s where this novel’s similarity with real life ends. Not only does Allan Karlsson continue to live, but he manages to evade a thorough investigation into his disappearance that involves the town’s mayor, chief detective, prosecutor, and separately, a criminal gang that believes Allan has stolen an important item that belongs to them.
Through chapters that alternate between the events following Allan’s 2005 escape and his life story spanning 1905-2005, we learn the secret to Allan’s longevity: his nonchalant attitude that is best summed up by the motto, “Things are what they are, and whatever will be will be.” He distrusts politics, dismissing it as “often not only unnecessary, but sometimes also unnecessarily complicated,” a position I can appreciate as we enter the homestretch of a presidential election race in the US (which I’m pretty sure has taken years off of my life because I care too much). With his fuss-free, apolitical attitude, Allan survives many near-death experiences, even as he gets entangled in significant historical events and meets some of the most powerful world leaders of the 20th Century, including Harry S Truman, Winston Churchill, and Mao Zedong. History buffs who are able to suspend their disbelief will enjoy the guest appearances of these important political figures.
Jonasson’s novel is best for people looking for escapist literature who enjoyed Winston Groom’s Forrest Gump and Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (which I reviewed). The lack of transitions between paragraphs in some of the chapters (switching between characters) made the book feel clunky at times, but overall, this novel was a pleasant read due to its fascinating plot and its dark, dry humor that kept me amused and half-smiling throughout the novel’s 400 pages.