Jonas Jonasson's new book, The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, is a bit like a Jacques Tati movie. It is a tale of mishap and mayhem, slapstick moves and close shaves.
This bestselling novel (translated from Swedish) is a comic narrative, but it is also a highly original and slightly twisted account of the 20th century with a highly original and slightly eccentric old man present at many of the big occasions.
On the day Allan Karlsson turns 100, he avoids his birthday party in the lounge of the Old Folks Home in Malmkoping and climbs out of the window in his slippers. He has no clear plan but, as we see in the slow revelation of his life, fortune favours him at every turn and misstep.
From page one you are thrust into the wit of the author - a wit that plays out on the level of the sentence, in the calamitous chain of cause and effect and in the subversive slant on history and politics. Allan, we read, was "no fashion plate" in his brown ensemble - and we are then reminded that men of that age rarely have a sense of fashion or abandon their 100th birthday, let alone have a 100th birthday.
But by page 5, I found some of the wit a little predictable and tiresome. Allan comes to an obstacle in his path but the centenarian is "no high jumper". He had, we learn, once crossed the Himalayas, but "that was no picnic". A few more chapters on, with the deadpan wit irritating me less, the madcap shifts and turns of the narrative kept me interested.
When Allan is at the station trying to get the first bus out of town, he accidentally steals a suitcase loaded with cash (he had promised not let the suitcase out of his sight while the owner was in the bathroom but the bus turned up so what was he to do?).
Allan ends up at a shabby station owned by an old man with a history of thieving - as does the irate owner of the suitcase. The latter ends up dead in the freezer and Allan and Julius hit the road with their newly acquired cash. The police and a drug gang are hot on their trail, but like any good slapstick it is one narrow escape after another.
The two fugitives are joined by a hot-dog stand manager turned chauffeur, a circus elephant and its liberator, the head of the drug gang and the police detective.
What adds zest to the novel is the character of Allan. His special skill is in explosives - a skill that had him helping Franco in Spain (he blew up bridges), the United States in World War II (he was the coffee boy but solved the impasse in making a nuclear bomb). He was in Paris in 1968. He seems to have dined with most world leaders and then agreed to blow something up.
The novel is testimony (in a farfetched way) that the most ordinary and humble man can do the most extraordinary things. An entertaining read.
Paula Green is an Auckland poet and children's author.