Title: The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared
Rating: 4 Stars
Yes, that’s really the title. And yes, that’s pretty much the plot of the novel.
This was one of the books that I picked up at Foyle’s, the bookstore in London. I made a point of picking a European author that I’ve never heard of, hoping that I’d get a title that would be scarcer to get in the US. Of course, when I brought the book in to work one day to read during lunch, my cube-mate looked over, saw it, and casually mentioned that his partner at home has it on her book shelf ready to read. Oh well, so much for me being original.
It really is a simple story. A man (Allan Karlsson) at a nursing home is about to celebrate his birthday. There is going to be a big party and the mayor will meet him and shake his hand. He really doesn’t like it there and he really doesn’t like being such a center of attention, so before the party he manages to climb out the window and goes for a walk.
Karlsson heads to a bus station. There, a young man wearing the jacket of a gang asks him to watch his suitcase while he goes to the bathroom. Left with the unattended suitcase, this inspires in Karlsson an unexpected desire for larceny. He takes the suitcase, boards the next bus, and heads off.
At that point, the adventure is on. It turns out that the suitcase is full of ill-gotten money, so understandably, the gang member, and later, other members of the gang, take off in pursuit of Karlsson. Karlsson, in turn, manages to befriend several people that together decide to split the money and try to stay ahead of the gang members.
Through coincidences and happenstance, not only do they stay ahead of the gang members, but actually manage to dispatch a couple. The police, first called in when Karlsson was reported missing and feared kidnapped, are now also pursuing Karlsson and his friends for the suspected murders.
All of this is handled with gentle humor. As a 100 year old man, Karlsson has learned to take events rather calmly and sure enough, things just seem to manage to work out for him.
At the same time that the pursuit of Karlsson is taking place, we learn his back story, and what a back story it is. It turns out, via a series of bizarre twists in his life, he has met / worked for / drank with Francisco Franco, Mao Zedung, Harry Truman, Kim Il Sung, and Charles de Gaulle, among others. He made the breakthrough that allowed the US to build the atomic weapon, and then later, while drunk on a submarine, also told the Soviets. Through all of these adventures Karlsson is calm and unperturbed.
So, the title of this post is now more easily understood. Like Forrest Gump, Karlsson is inadvertently at several key moments in history. Like Mr Magoo, he blunders into all kinds of potentially catastrophic circumstances and emerges unscathed.
There is nothing extreme about this book. It is suffused with gentle, genial humor. Usually I find this kind of humor obvious or off putting, but here it is absolutely charming. There were several moments where I just shook my head and laughed out loud. The denouement with the prosecutor bent upon arresting and convicting Karlsson was especially humorous.
By the end, I was completely won over with the adventures of Allan Karlsson.