I'll admit it: try as I may to be open-minded about the aging process, I am still a vain American who attempts to moisturize away wrinkles and scrupulously pluck every strand of gray hair. So I was intrigued when I heard about a novel that stars a spunky geriatric protagonist. For the past few years this debut novel from Swedish author Jonas Jonasson has been a European bestseller, and now it has finally been translated from Swedish and is available to English readers. Any seasoned reader will assume that this work is riding off the laurels of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, but this novel offers an entirely different Sweden from the dark, crime-ridden one we have come to associate with Nordic novels.
The story opens on the 100th birthday of Allan Karlsson, an elder care resident with nerves of steel and a penchant for vodka. Allan refuses to be defined by his age alone, so he decides to walk away from the care home just minutes before his big birthday. His escape sets the town - and eventually all of Sweden - into an uproar. Not necessarily looking for adventure, but still managing to attract a great deal of it, Allan becomes involved with some criminals, to comedic effect, and meets several memorable characters (including an elephant) who join him on his escapades across Europe.
This modern-day story of Allan's centennial adventure is interspersed with chapters that tell the story of his long life, often tilting into farce and satire as Allan calmly and somewhat blithely influences the course of the twentieth century. In Los Alamos he becomes entangled with the Manhattan Project, and there are appearances by Stalin, President Truman, Kim Il Sung (the first leader of North Korea), the Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco, as well as a great many other characters who are less memorable not merely because they are not historical figures, but also because they don't play essential roles that prove important in the scope of Allan's life.
While at times the novel does feel a little baggy, a little too big for the relatively simple, one-life narrative it is, it also offers the rarity of treating old age with grace, humor, and joy. Allan is a role model for those who fear sinking into disuse and decrepitude, and the novel's value is in exploring old age as a time that is as lively and colorful as youth.
Jonasson's sense of humor relies on the subtle effects of understatement, repetition, and timing. His light tone and Allan's blasé attitude are reassuring that, despite the great amount of dictators, explosions, and wars that are folded into the narrative, our main character will survive safely and without serious incident. What compels a reader to continue, therefore, is the desire to untangle the humorous absurdities of Allan's lifespan and to confront some of the twentieth century's most grave moments with the gentle sarcasm of a world-weary protagonist who has truly seen it all. After visiting the newly inaugurated President Truman, who wishes to speak to him about Chinese communism (yeslike I said, this character gets around!), Allan merely sighs and grumbles that he "should have guessed this was about politics."
This book is a sort of beach read for history fans, as it offers a playful, silly narrative that uses the postmodern literary technique of allowing historical figures to come alive as characters. To fully enjoy it, readers need to be relaxed enough to suspend disbelief and revel in the carefree ways of old age. This is perhaps the hallmark of the whole story: a life that is full and well-lived, and a character who continues that vivacious life regardless of his age. Similarly, the novel also asks for the same state of mind of readers: relax, enjoy.
This review is from the September 19, 2012 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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