My rating: 5 out of 5
Joseph Stalin. Mao Tse-Tung. Winston Churchill. Robert Oppenheimer. Sigvard Eklund. Charles de Gaulle. Presidents Truman, Johnson, and Nixon. Sonya the Elephant. Conceivably, if you lived a hundred years — the right hundred years — and were the right guy, and were in the right places at the right times, you might just interact with all of these people. In fact, if you were the right guy in the right places at the right times, you might conceivably have a pretty significant impact on some of these people and the big things they did with their lives.
Allan Karlsson, as it turns out, is the right guy. But when this quirky, amusing, intelligent novel begins, he is also a hundred years old, fed up with life in a nursing home, and anxious for a stiff drink. The novel opens with his undramatic escape from the Malmköping Old Folks’ Home and takes a sharp left turn into the twin stories of Allan Karlsson: his present-day adventures as he flees across Sweden, pursued not only by police who want to save him but crooks who want him dead, and his astonishing life story that shows the reader how Allan Karlsson became the man he is today.
The 100-Year-Old Man bills itself as a Forrest Gump story in the back cover copy, and that’s not a bad way to characterize it, at least on the surface. Like Gump, Karlsson has — largely through sheer dumb luck — found himself a player in a disproportionately large number of major historical events. Also like Gump, Karlsson has navigated these events devoid of political or economic motivation beyond simple survival and a “why not” attitude. Unlike Forrest Gump, Allan Karlsson is a brilliant explosives expert, and this expertise propels him beyond the sidelines straight into the action. Without intention or motivation, Karlsson drives and changes the course of history itself. Jonasson’s novel paints this now-unassuming centenarian as the pivotal figure in multiple international conflicts, assassination attempts, intrigues, and conspiracies. Yes, The 100-Year-Old Man is kindred to Forrest Gump, but it also shares genes with Catch Me If You Can and perhaps even Water for Elephants; heck, there might even be a wee dash of Douglas Adams in there.
The result is a novel that I was reluctant to put down, that I recommended multiple times to the people around me as I read, and that was chock-full of passages that I just couldn’t help but read aloud. For example:
If it is possible to become stone-cold sober instantly after having just downed a whole bottle of tequila, then that was what Vice President Harry S. Truman did. The news of Roosevelt’s sudden demise meant that the vice president had to conclude the pleasant dinner with Allan and fly immediately to Washington. Allan was left behind in the restaurant to argue with the headwaiter about the bill. In the end, the headwaiter accepted Allan’s argument that the future president of the United States was probably reasonably credit-worthy and that, in any case, the headwaiter now knew his address.
I greatly appreciated Jonasson’s dry humor, the somehow believable absurdity of both storylines, the fascinating gallivant through 20th century international history, and the unabashed way in which Jonasson drew present-day Karlsson as a vivacious and personable protagonist despite or even because of his advanced chronological age.
I love it when I stumble upon a book by accident — or perhaps its the book fairies, or fate, or angelus liborumi — and it turns out to be a real winner. This particular book was crammed into a shelf of used crafting and home decor books in a crowded corner of a thrift shop in a small Idaho town; I’d already gone through the entire book section but had returned while waiting for someone else in my party to finish shopping. The book’s bright orange cover caught my eye; the ridiculous title and its placement made me think it was going to be an interesting nonfiction, perhaps in the sociological vein, and then the first few pages convinced me to gamble a dollar on it.
In all honesty, I was initially skeptical of this book based on the highly scientific fact that it was written by a Swedish author (originally in Swedish, naturally). I had failed to make it through the first chapter of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and I had the erroneous idea that Jasper Fforde’s books — which I desperately want to like but cannot — were of Swedish descent as well. From these two disappointments I had drawn the conclusion that I Dislike All Swedish Literature, which is approximately as fair as stating that one dislikes all meatballs based on the frozen nuggets available at IKEA. I’m glad that, despite the word “Swedish” emblazoned several times across the cover, I gave this novel a chance. It’s one of my favorites of the academic year thus far, and definitely one I hope to share with others. Heck, this book would be equally appropriately recommended to my highly educated book club friends and with at least some of my 17-year-old students. I may have to track down a second copy for my classroom library!