While in England recently, I found myself in a bookstore with my Swedish companion nearby. She pointed out a book, titled The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson, telling me that she read it in Swedish a couple of years earlier and thought it was brilliant, and that I should read it now it had finally been translated into English. Trusting her sense of judgement (of both literature and me), I bought this book, and began reading it that evening.
It turns out this was the best-selling book in Sweden in 2010, and I can really see why. It tells the story of a very able and intelligent man, Allan Karlsson, who, on his 100th birthday, decides he doesn’t want to stay in his retirement home to celebrate with various locals, and so he quite literally escapes out the window and runs off. The spontaneity doesn’t quite stop there though, as only a couple of chapters later, he steals a suitcase which happens not to be filled with clothes but with money. It also turns out that he has stolen it from a member of a crime gang, and suddenly he has them and the police chasing after him as he inadvertently leaves a trail of destruction behind him.
At first the story seems too spontaneous, as if it were just trying to be funny for the sake of being funny. But the current storyline is interspersed with tales from his past, in which we not only learn about Allan’s character, but also about his involvement in many of history’s greatest events, including World War II and the making of the atom bomb, to Mao Tse-tung and the making of communist China, even to the fall of the Soviet Union. It soon becomes apparent that this story is clearly inspired by the tall tales that we all remember our Grandpas telling us when we are little children, only taking them to whole new extremes in the case of Allan Karlsson.
The book is very funny, and I found myself laughing out loud constantly and consistently throughout. But perhaps more importantly, it is also very well written and extremely well translated (though I’d be curious to know the thoughts of somebody who can and has read both translations (hint hint, you know who you are)), and I found myself drawn into Allan’s world, past and present, with ease. Writing comedy is very challenging, in that it is hard to balance good writing with funny writing (something I discovered recently with my latest NaNoWriMo efforts), but Jonasson makes it look easy.
If you’re looking for an intelligent, quirky and downright funny read, I absolutely recommend reading this novel. It is one of the best books I have read all year, and has been a nice reminder that comedy and good writing do not need to be mutually exclusive. It’s also shown me just how funny those Swedes can be! Here’s hoping Mr Jonasson writes some more novels of this calibre.
Have you read any books that you have found strike that balance between good writing and humour?