Tuesday, October 6, 2020

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


This book was suggested by my friend K, who blogs here. Her description of the book is pretty accurate, if you want to look that up. Before or after you read mine. 


Anyway, this book was originally published in Sweden, before being translated into English. I have Swedish roots on my paternal side (that’s where my name comes from, in any case), and I suspect that part of my appreciation for dry humor is from those genes. 


The title is a pretty decent starting point. Indeed, Allan Carlson turns 100, and decides to leave his nursing home because he hates it - they won’t let him have his beloved vodka! - and set off on a random adventure. Well, as soon as he visits the state liquor store. 


From there, things get...rather madcap and crazy. Allan buys a bus ticket using the last of his money - a bus ticket to anywhere, as far as his cash will get him. Which turns out to be a stop in the absolute middle of nowhere. But before he boards, a young man in a jacket with a cryptic “Never Again” on it, asks him to watch his suitcase while he relieves himself. But before the young man returns, the bus is ready to leave. So, Allan grabs the suitcase and gets on board…


The suitcase turns out to have millions in cash, and “Never Again” turns out to be a very small organized crime outfit who really wants that suitcase back. 


Interspersed with Allan’s adventures as a centenarian are flashbacks from Allan’s colorful past. He is essentially a Swedish Forest Gump. Not too bright, but a savant at explosives, he manages to get caught up in the major events of the 20th Century, from the development of the atomic bomb to its accidental revelation to a Russian agent (after vodka, naturally). Allan also manages to escape from a Gulag, meet Kim Il Sung and Mao, save Churchill’s life, have drinks with Truman, save Franco’s life, and more. It is hard to say which is more implausible and humorous: the present- day adventures, or the past. 


And how about those present-day adventures? Allan first meets up with Julius, a petty thief and jack-of-all-trades. Then, with Benny, who spent his life getting educated using an inheritance, until he now has studied (but not completed) nearly every possible area of knowledge...and now runs a hot dog stand. Then “The Beauty,” a woman living in the woods with an elephant. Following on their trail is the law, convinced at first that Allan has been kidnapped by the criminal underworld, then, convinced that Allan has somehow managed to bump off multiple gangsters. Which is, in a way, not false. 


There are so many laugh out loud funny lines too. Jonas Jonasson and translator Rod Bradbury combine to make a book that is delightful to read. Here are the ones I wrote down as I read. 


After escaping, Allan goes past a graveyard, he reflects on mortality, and how dead he felt in the home. 


However many aches and pains he suffered, it had to be much more interesting and instructive to be on the run from Director Alice than to be lying rigid six feet under.


When we meet Julius, we get to hear a brief account of his life. 


Julius was born in the north of Sweden, the only child of Anders and Elvina Jonsson. Julius worked as a laborer on the family farm and was beaten every day by his father who was of the opinion that Julius was good for nothing. When Julius was twenty-five, his mother died of cancer - which Julius grieved over - and shortly afterward his father was swallowed by the bog when he tried to rescue a heifer. Julius grieved over that too - because he was fond of the heifer. 


One of Allan’s core beliefs is a disdain for politics. Allan has his own moral compass, and refuses to get involved in the ideological disputes he comes in contact with, in large part because they seem to him to be more about power struggles than anything. This comes in part from his own upbringing. 


In a political sense, Allan’s childhood had been bewildering. On the one hand, he was from the working class. You could hardly use any other description of a boy who ends his schooling when he is ten to get a job in industry. On the other hand, he respected the memory of his father, and his father during far too short a life had managed to hold views right across the spectrum. He started on the Left, went on to praise Czar Nicholas II, and rounded off his existence through a land dispute with Vladimir Illich Lenin. 


Later, Allan makes an observation about world leaders:


Following on less than a decade after the generalissimo’s dinner invitation, Allan surmised that it must be a common characteristic of world leaders to invite you to eat as soon as you did something they liked, but he didn’t say so. 


At one point in the book, Allan finds himself caught between Mao and the Kuomintang during the Chinese Revolution. The author’s pithy observation sums up what went wrong for Chiang Kai-shek.


Soong Mei-ling had understood, just like the clown [Mao], what Chiang Kai-shek so far had not - namely, that it was easier to be the leader of a nation if you had the nation behind you. 


This is something that Trump is discovering now - and that the Republicans are going to discover in the near future. Stirring up racism and hate can only get you so far - eventually, you have to actually do something that the majority of people want. And not just the old, white, racist minority that forms your base. 


At the risk of a bit of a spoiler, I wanted to mention this line, when Allan and Julius recruit Benny. 


The part of the story Benny found hardest to stomach was that a person had been put to death and subsequently packed for export. But on the other hand, it clearly had been an accident, even though vodka was involved. 


Vodka is a key plot point throughout the book. It is easy to forget that Russia is not the only country with a tradition of vodka - Sweden is right up there. As Allan notes, after he has drunk a Chinese guard under the table:


Never try to outdrink a Swede, unless you happen to be a Finn or at least a Russian. 


I will also give credit to the author for managing to make one of my favorite puns. The brother of one of the gangsters tries to start a gang, with an English name - because, edgy, right? But his girlfriend, not fluent in English, accidentally sews “The Violins” on their jackets, not “The Violence.” 


Religion enters the story here and there. Sweden is a strongly atheistic nation - the most atheistic in the world. (I wrote more about that here.) In general, the author isn’t particularly reverent, although he isn’t particularly mean either. Mostly, religious zealots get played for laughs, and a faux conversion ends up being used as an alibi, so to speak. Allan himself refuses to be converted by an Anglican missionary he meets in Iran. 


Allan answered that in a purely physical sense he was lost, since he had no control of where he stood, but that didn’t mean he was spiritually lost. Allan had always reasoned about religion that if you couldn’t know for sure then there was no point in going around guessing. 


I did find this line amusing. As a religious person who has plenty of trauma from growing up Fundamentalist, I am less concerned about people “guessing” than I am about those who are sure they know it all absolutely. But the line still made me laugh. From my point of view, all of living life is to a degree “guessing.” Science makes strides, but we learn how much we do not know. And as to the best way to live? Well, that’s where you get into what can only be described as trying to get somewhere in the general proximity of truth. 


The author also takes on Fundamentalism in its Pentecostal form. Some Bibles, in which there is an intentional misprint - “And they lived happily ever after” at the end - feature in the plot, and we learn of the printer who did the dastardly deed. He started out Jehovah’s Witness, but left after they had no answer for all their failed predictions of Christ’s return. He then joins the Pentecostals, for, well, interesting reasons. 


Upon which, the typographer had joined the Pentecostal Church; he liked their teachings about the Last Judgment, he could embrace the idea of God’s final victory over evil, the return of Jesus (without their actually naming a date), and how most of the people from the typographer’s childhood including his own father, would burn in hell.


This is, in my view, why the End Times™ have become such an obsession of a certain generation - generations - of Evangelicals. (Ahem, Boomers and their parents…) At its core, it is a revenge fantasy, when God comes and punishes all the people they hate. Like those LGBTQ people, atheists, and liberals.  


Later in the story, when the pastor and Allan are imprisoned by the Iranians, the pastor is at loose ends. 


Instead, the pastor turned to God and prayed for advice. Was it the Lord who had sent Mr. Karlsson to help him, or was it the Devil who was behind it?

But God answered with silence. He did that sometimes, and Father Ferguson always interpreted it to mean that he should think for himself. Admittedly, it didn’t always work out well when the pastor thought for himself, but you couldn’t just give up. 


Allan’s solution to things is different, though. When Benny meets up with his estranged brother Bosse, they start to air their old grievances. 


[A]llan interrupted the two brothers by saying that he had been out and about in the world and if there was one thing he had learned it was that the very biggest and apparently most impossible conflicts on earth were based on the dialogue: “You are stupid, no, it’s you who are stupid, no, it’s you who are stupid.” The solution, said Allan, was often to drown a bottle of vodka together and then look ahead. But now there was an unfortunate problem in that Benny was a teetotaler. Allan could, of course, look after Benny’s share of the vodka, but he didn’t think it would be quite the same thing. 


Solving the Middle East, of course, would require more than one bottle, as Allan notes…


The author also skewers the media - particularly the tabloids. Allan’s disappearance and alleged murder spree dominates the news cycle for weeks. But then, after he disappears along with his friends, and are not seen for a while, there is the question of what to do if you are a journalist. 


After only a day or two, TV and the national and local newspapers had stopped reporting, according to the old-fashioned and easily defensible standpoint that if you didn’t have anything to say, you said nothing. 

The evening papers, the Swedish tabloids, held out longer. If you had nothing to say, you could always interview somebody who didn’t realize that he too had nothing to say. 


This is precisely why I do not watch TV news - here in the US, it is practically the same thing. Ditto for tabloids, of course, but we don’t really have the equivalent to European rags. 


There is another fascinating exchange that is too long to quote, but is excellent satire. The Chief Inspector gets an irate call from a man claiming to have a tip in the case. He assumes that the hot-dog-stand proprietor is a “foreigner.” Because why would a Swede own a stand? He goes on to accuse Benny (who is Swedish) of being a Muslim or a Turk or an Arab, or worse, all of those, and not paying taxes (because immigrants never pay taxes, right?) and bringing a large family of dirty immigrants all on public assistance. And on and on. And then, after being informed Benny is Swedish with a single brother as his relative, the man accuses Benny of being a socialist. 


Hmm, this sounds….really, really familiar. It is almost as if racism and hate sound the same everywhere…


While Sweden has its own issues with the Far Right, the author can’t resist a bit of a dig at us Americans. When Allan ends up part of a discussion between Lyndon Johnson and De Gaulle, the later says to himself, “After all, the Americans saw communists hiding in every bush.” This too, remains accurate today. 


The De Gaulle episode is also surprisingly perceptive about another fact of history. The discussion comes as Communist agents are trying to start a revolution in France, using disaffected workers on strike. How was the revolution prevented?


By giving the workers what they wanted!


Yes, a big increase in wages, reduction in the work week, more union power, and so on. By making the lives of workers better, the radical Communist elements were essentially neutralized. 


This lesson was also experienced in the United States during the New Deal. There was a genuine risk that we might have gone Communist. FDR and others recognized that increasing inequality and hardship was not sustainable, and that either the problem was addressed, or revolution would be inevitable. 


We need to learn that lesson today. Increasing inequality and poverty cannot be addressed by social darwinism and police brutality. Either we will take concrete steps to fix the problem, or there will be a revolution. I, for one, prefer the reformative approach, as it tends to be less bloody and disruptive. 


Just a couple of final thoughts. First, if you need to transport an elephant, perhaps a converted Scania K113 is just the ticket. In yellow. At least the author thought so. 


Finally, near the end, when the prosecutor gets to talk to Allan (and his cohorts), the tale they spin is almost as unbelievable as the truth. In fact, it is when Allan tells the truth about his past that no one can believe it. The prosecutor gets confused over Allan’s crossing the Himalayas, thinking it was a recent event. 


“You crossed the Himalayas? At a hundred?”

“No, don’t be silly,” said Allan. “You see, Mr. Prosecutor, I haven’t always been a hundred years old. No, that’s recent.”


That’s a good place to end this post. It was a fun book, wildly implausible, silly, and yet more thoughtful than it appears. Thanks, K, for the suggestion!






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