‘The Hundred-Year-Old Man’ is, in a nutshell, a Swedish Forrest Gump with bombs.
Allan Karlsson is a gentle, peace-loving Swede with no political interest whatsoever yet over the course of his life finds himself in the midst of many of the major political wrangles of the 20th Century. From the Spanish Civil War through to the end of the Cold War, Karlsson has been there in the background influencing events, world leaders and history. Yet his only moment of fame was on his 100th birthday when he climbed out of the window and soon found himself on the run (or more accurately, on the shuffle) and wanted for murder.
I don’t what it is about Scandinavian writers but they often seem to want to put their characters into central places of importance in Europe or around the world. Jostein Gaarder certainly does it and so does Jonasson here. Perhaps it is because their countries have such small populations or the fact they are both figuratively and literally left ‘out in the cold’ by the rest of the world. Whatever it is, I find it mildly irritating.
Another aspect I’m not so keen on is that though Forrest Gump stretches the limits of believability, it does manage (just) to keep on the right side of the limit. Jonasson’s novel makes no such attempt. It is full of bizarre coincidences and strange circumstances (not to forget an elephant in Sweden too) that, in the end, really don’t stand well as imagined reality. Given his upbringing and circumstances, it is too much to believe this man could learn several languages fluently over the course of his life let alone that he was instrumental in designing the atomic bomb. In effect, this is fantasy without the fantastical.
So these are my criticisms – and I’m aware that not everyone will view them as such – such as they are. The question is, does the book work?
Well…yes and no. Luckily I’m someone who never gives up on a book once I start reading it. I have noticed several people telling me that ‘The Hundred-Year-Old Man’ is a book they have started reading but haven’t got around to finishing. I can understand that. I certainly read the first few chapters with a frown on my face.
But it does get better. Once you’ve accepted the style and it no longer irritates, the story is gently amusing and the characters grow on you. Although, when I finished, this wasn’t a book I wish had never come to an end, I certainly closed it with a smile on my face and my heart warmed. It is an easy going ‘feel good’ story where everyone Allan meets (bar those who meet an untimely, though not unjustified, end) end up better off and happier through meeting him as he bumbles through life. It is clear to me that the author was thinking of the book as a film (which it became in 2014 I believe) as the whole of it is very visual rather than cerebral. There’s nothing heavy, no depth to character to tax the mind. It’s just a very different kind of book which is pleasant to read – like wearing old slippers in a way.
So if you’re looking for something to challenge you or make you think, this novel isn’t it. But for an amusing, pleasant time living in a slightly strange world of dynamite, vodka and friendship, you can do a lot worse than come here.