Tuesday, 5 August 2014

'The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window and Disappeared' by Jonas Jonasson

*This review will contain spoilers!*

'The Hundred-Year-Old Man' is not a book that I would normally read, so I'm not sure what drew me towards it in the first place, but overall I was rather entertained by the writing style, even though I found it a bit of a difficult read. 
If you haven't already read this book, it tells the story of centenarian Allan Karlsson, a man who decides to run away from his nursing home on the morning of his 100th birthday, minutes before he is to be fetched to attend his birthday party. After escaping and heading towards the bus station, Allan meets a young man, agrees to look after his suitcase while he relieves himself in the tiny bathroom stall then spontaneously takes the suitcase, along with the 50 million crowns nestled inside, causing mischief and mayhem to ensue.
The majority of the book is not actually dedicated to the developing story of Allan escaping, but is actually retrospective, recapping all of the crazy events he's been involved in during his hundred years. These recaps range from his experiences in a psychiatric hospital while he was younger to inadvertently creating the atomic bomb that was used in the fatal Hiroshima attack in 1945. 
Sadly, I found the recapping of the past adventures much more interesting than the development of the situation with the stolen suitcase. The recaps all managed to squeeze so much information into a short section and I couldn't really predict where they were going, meaning they were both educational and entertaining, but the bulk of the story contained twists and turns that weren't so much surprising as spottable. Lovable hot-dog stand manager Benny going from being a chauffeur to being a partner-in-crime was obvious from the moment they met him, as were the deaths of the two criminals who were attempting to retrieve the money to please their boss. The twists that weren't predictable were downright ludicrous, as shown in the meeting between Bosse Baddy and the Boss, who just happened to be ex-colleagues and therefore dissolved the tension filled confrontation immediately.
However, I'm unsure if this is because of the original writing or due to the translation. The original version was written in pure Swedish, meaning that some of the charm and humour could have been dissipated during the translating process. The reviews included in the blurb claim "an incredibly funny story," "dynamite comedy," and "hilarious," but come from Aftonbladet, Le Figaro and Corriere della Sera respectively, which could mean that the comedy was literally lost in translation as I didn't find the book humourous at all. 
Don't get me wrong, the visual image of a hundred year old man climbing out of his window and going on a killing spree should be gut-wrenchingly funny, but I just can't find the humour in the writing (excluding one amazing quote from the French President De Gaulle, who exclaims "Ugh! Damn and blast! [but in French]." which makes me laugh for the bracketed addition more than anything else). If anything, this book just seems to contain the moral that the elderly, while both doddering and harmless, can pack a punch if they need to, so you shouldn't allow old age to be a synonym for weak and helpless. 
The only thing I found even slightly laughable was the sheer incompetence of Chief Inspector Göran Aronsson, who is equal parts stupid and over-confident, exemplified perfectly when a tip gets called in with a sighting of the old man only for Aronsson to completely ignore it, due to "years of experience [teaching him] to distinguish between good and bad tips," before later being "forced to admit to himself that he had wrongly dismissed this tip the day before." While his ability to admit his mistake redeems him slightly,  I still think the whole situation could have been resolved much faster with a more thorough police investigation. Also, if you think you're confronting a triple-murderer, please don't let them go and make you coffee.
Contrastingly, the retrospective chapters were extremely fixating and I found them easy to devour compared to the slow and sluggish pace with which I plodded through the developing plot line. I'm very similar to Allan, in that I'd rather keep myself out of both religious and political debates, so a lot of the descriptions of communist and socialist regimes went straight over my head, but because I felt as though that allowed me to empathise with Allan even further this could perhaps be the reason these chapters stood out as more intriguing.
Furthermore, the addition of Ni Wayan Laksmi (aka Amanda) brightened my attitude towards the book drastically. I'm a woman, so I love books that have a decent amount of female characters, but the fact that 'The Hundred-Year Old Man' only had two females who had a significant focus upon them was a bit of a disappointment. I absolutely love feisty, no-holds-barred The Beauty, don't get me wrong, but past her back story and the confrontation of the criminals she is harbouring on her farm her character is a background character at best, while being definitely the least important of the crew. However, Amanda actually gets a decent focus on her for a large section of the retrospective writing. Despite her being aggravatingly idiotic I found it refreshing having another female in the mix, even though the way she was represented as a successful female politician who had no idea what she was doing really irritated me. The Beauty is single and lonely and lives on a farm in the middle of nowhere, but as soon as we have a female character with a husband and a successful career she has to be an idiot and become such a high-profile politician off of complete flukes and bribery.
Alas, that's an argument to save for another time. 
Even with these issues, I still powered through and managed to complete the novel. At times, it filled me with the urge to pull my hair out more than I've ever felt the need to before, but in the end it wasn't actually all that bad. I think this is a book that you really need to read in chunks (in the middle of the book I was reading a few pages at a time and I became equal parts frustrated and confused) but if you have the time to sit down and read a good 50-100 pages at a time you'll get a lot more satisfaction. The ending is satisfactory, however I would suggest skipping the epilogue because it just creates so many more questions that we will never get answered which is in equal parts pointless and overtly frustrating.

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