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A querulous knight on a quest – The 100-Year-Old Man…, by Jonas Jonasson

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson
The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson (Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers, Toronto, Canada; English language translation by Rod Bradbury; 2012)

This book’s wordy title, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared (“The 100-Year-old-Man” for short) is part of a trend for novels with declamatory names, and it’s a pain to write out. But it does make it clear to the prospective reader what is is about; it is similar to the self-explanatory titles of folklore stories; and it does make the novel stand out from others on the store shelves.

The difficult old man who, well, climbs out of a window and disappears, is an old-age-pensioner version of “Forrest Gump”. I thought it was mildly funny and entertaining at first, but after the so-manyeth incident where the old man and his companions almost get into trouble but then get saved by some amazing coincidence, it becomes predictable. It is basically a modern version of a folkloristic quest tale.

“Allan Karlsson”, the 100-year-old man of the title, meets a number of oddball characters on his quest to get out of the old-age home in which he has ended up, and recalls the adventures on which he embarked throughout his life. In folklore and fairytales, a quest, a journey towards a goal, serves as a plot device and also as a symbol. In this case, it is a symbol for resistance. If there is a message in this novel it is that old people can still give the finger to society that wants to coop them up and shut them up, and Karlsson’s flight from the old age home is a symbol for his flight from being one of the living dead in the home, bored out of his mind: 

“…he thought that he had probably been mistaken when he’s sat in the Old Folks’ home, feeling as if he might as well be dead. However many aches and pains he suffered, it had to be much more interesting and instructive to be on the run from Director Alice than to be lying six feet under.”

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson, p. 4

The features of quests in fables

Quests appear in the folklore of every nation – and in Sweden, where the author comes from and the story begins, there has been a recent resurgence of producing literature in the folkloristic tradition, rather than literature heavy with political debate or social criticism, though there is some social criticism in this novel. Quest fables – like any other fable – have set features or trademarks. To compare, briefly:

  • Hardship: Quests require great exertion on the part of the hero, and the overcoming of many obstacles, much travel and exotic locations and cultures. (In his early life, Karlsson meets up with Mao Tse-Tung, Kim Il Sung and Marshall Kirill Meretskov, to name but a few historical characters. And in his present quest, he runs into all sorts of interesting and criminal types who travel with him.)
  • Absentation: A member of a family leaves the security of the home environment. (Karlsson’s story starts and ends in the old-age home from which he walks away on his 100th birthday.)
  • Interdiction: An interdiction is addressed to the hero. (Most people who are not residents of the old age home want Karlsson to stay there and come back from wherever he has wandered off to.)
  • Violation of interdiction: The interdiction is violated and villains enter the tale. (Karlsson immediately gets tangled up with some criminal but likeable types.)

And so on. All the other elements of the classical quest folktale are there in the novel: reconnaissance, trickery, complicity, mediation by the hero, a magical agent (in this case, Karlsson’s magical ability to make bombs and remain unperturbed), pursuit, rescue, difficult tasks, recognition/reward.

The folkloristic form, as well as the simple language (short, simple, choppy sentences, many starting with “and”, “but”, “now” and “yes/no”), which is not due to the translation from Swedish to English, and the simplistic resolutions, made me think that it was formulaic and ultimately, not that memorable.

But to prove that these children’s stories for adults fall into the taste of large numbers of modern readers; The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared was released as hardback and audiobook in 2009, and as paperback in 2010, became the best selling book for advanced children in Sweden in 2010 (told you so!) and by July 2012 had sold three million copies world wide. The audiobook, read by the actor Björn Granath, won the Iris Ljudbokspris award in 2010. In 2013, the film of the book was released.

Next post: Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, by David Sedaris

Also by Jonas Jonasson: This book needs no review – The Accidental Further Adventures of the Hundred-Year-old Man
The Accidental Further Adventures of the Hundred-Year-Old Man: A Novel, by Jonas Jonasson, translated from Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles (Paperback; publisher: HarperCollins Publishers; Aug. 7, 2018; 448 pages)
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