Although The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson came out a few years ago, it really is worth a mention, as its wacky humor and unexpected plot changes make it a really good read (as long as you accept that in Allan Karlsson’s world, anything can happen). Published in 2009, in Sweden, the book has been translated into 35 languages, has sold more than 3 million copies worldwide and was even made into a film in 2013 (although from what we hear the film doesn’t quite live up to the book). The NY times has said that this story could be put into the genre of “old people behaving hilariously” and we agree that Jonasson’s humor and portrayal of Karlsson, the centenarian, are certainly not lost in translation. However, part of the beauty of this book is the lack of stereotyping of senior citizens. Allan Karlsson as simply someone who has gone on living, his body might not be the same as it was 20 years before, but his mind certainly is.
Karlsson, proof that life extension happens through adventure, takes us on a journey through 20th century history, meeting a whole host of political leaders and leaving havoc in his wake as he wanders from one major event to the next. This unlikely hero shows that one can never have too many adventures, and although he doesn’t hesitate to remind those around him that he is in fact 100 years old, he finds the most creative ways around his mobility difficulties. Reading this book can make the reader think about how much the older generation must have seen and done, and how valuable their stories are.
Now, when it comes to explaining the plot of this story, a real difficulty arises in that so many stories happen and interlink with each other, that if the plot were to be written down you’d end up with the book written out again. However, Jonassen narrates the adventures in such a way that you are transported easily between different times and places, making it feel only natural that the next absurd situation Karlsson gets involved in follows the last. From the moment Allan climbs out of the window of his nursing home, he shows his impatience for everything that is expected of him as a centenarian, starting with his attendance at his own birthday party, which he runs away from.
His escape leads him to the bus station where he ‘acquires’ a suitcase full of money, and that is where his adventure begins! His analyses of situations are laughably rational as he talks his observations through, keeping the audience guessing as to what he will do next. This rationality stretches to analyses of some of the most powerful heads of state of the 20th century, including President Truman, General Franco, de Gaulle, Kim II Sung and his 11-year-old son, Mao Tse-tung, Stalin and Churchill, managing situations with each one very matter-of-factly. However, Karlsson’s lack of interest in political affairs means that out of each interaction a friendship is born, independently of political affiliation, nationality or culture.
Readers have compared this book to Voltaire’s “Candide” for its matter-of-fact tone and comic depictions of what are really quite tragic events. The lighthearted narration and comic moments show how although all of the book’s characters have their shortcomings, Karlsson not least, Karlsson’s optimistic view of the world and out-of-the-box thinking gets him and his friends to safety every time. A satiric depiction of historic events and characters leads to a light, fun read.
Allan Karlsson as a Main Character
‘No, don’t be silly,’ said Allan. ‘You see, Mr Prosecutor, I haven’t always been a hundred years old. No, that’s recent’
Allan Karlsson does not depict your average elder in a book, he is painted as someone who just happens to have lived a long time! However, it is impossible to talk about Karlsson as a character without talking about him as a senior citizen, and the light he sheds on some of the problems that come with aging, one of which is living in a nursing home. For some, Allan included, living in an assisted care facility is not the best option. Karlsson doesn’t like that he isn’t allowed to drink Vodka in the nursing home (although many would agree that a centenarian probably shouldn’t be drinking vodka every day) and the reader is reminded that for quite a few decades he has been perfectly capable of making his own decisions. We see Allan, an expert on explosives, friend to political leaders and adventurer, being told off like a naughty school child, and are reminded of the possible realities of moving into an “Old Folks’ Home” (although the stereotype may be exaggerated).
“If you are one hundred years old you sometimes find yourself going out in slippers”
This part of the book really makes you think about the strong bodies and strong wills that are sometimes hidden behind old age, and how senior citizens are often treated as a homogenous group rather than the individuals they are. This treatment is what ultimately leads to Karlsson’s escape and the start of his new adventure. The comical description of Allan escaping is very well-written in the book, from the description of Allen’s ‘pee slippers’ to his hesitation before climbing over a meter-high wall. We all have days where we’d like to escape from reality – whether from a nursing home or an office – and it’s liberating to follow Allan as he leaves it all behind.
The most notable thing about Karlson, however, is his unique outlook on life – people are just people, no matter what their political inclinations. He makes friends with people of all walks of life, and as long as they will have a drink with him, he reserves judgment on their actions (apart from those who are directly out to harm him). This outlook, combined with his unending optimism means that Allen finds himself thriving in the most diverse of situations, and making friends with the most unlikely of characters.
Lessons on Longevity
In an interview with The Telegraph, the author talks about the effect of having Allen Karlsson in his head, and how that helped him through some difficult parts of his life. He said that even after finishing the book, he still pictures Karlsson: “He sort of appears on my shoulder if I get stressed and says, ‘Come on, it cannot be that bad’.”
“He sort of appears on my shoulder if I get stressed and says, ‘Come on, it cannot be that bad’.”
This outlook on life can only come from those with more life experience, and as we talked about in our blog post for International Youth Day, wisdom really does come with age. Jonasson turning to his fictional character for support and guidance in this way really shows how much help and advice we can get from our elders. This advice, mixed with Karlsson’s optimism is the perfect elixir for a longer, happier life!
Although we can’t all age like Karlsson, and the nonchalant way in which he lets life carry him may not work for all of us, there is a lesson here in letting life carry you to where you need to be and living in as stress-free of an environment as possible. Whether in a care facility or in their own homes, seniors need to be given more of a voice, and Karlsson, more than anyone, shows that the elderly cannot and should not be underestimated!