On the day of his one hundredth birthday, Allan Karlsson decides that he is tired of the old people’s home and Director Alice, and his inability to regularly access vodka when desired, and climbs out the window. Uninterested in the birthday party being thrown for him, he makes a getaway through the flowerbed in his slippers, and disappears. Jonas Jonasson’s picaresque book tracks Allan through his modern-day escapade, as well as the surprisingly remarkable life he lead up until this point.
Sitting at the local bus depot, wondering where to go next, when Allan decides to walk away with a not-so-nice young man’s suitcase, we are given a hint that there is more to this old old man than originally suspected. Still in his slippers and with little-to-no plan, Allan’s escape manages to embroil a suitcase full of cash, a not-so-smart criminal gang, an incompetent prosecutor, an elephant, a couple of definitely explainable and totally understandable deaths, a very friendly and overeducated hot-dog-stand owner, and a very friendly thief. A charming steeliness belies the aged exterior of Allan that most others immediately assume to patronise. He plays up the old old man aspect when desired, and then twinklingly reveals the ridiculous bad-arse side of him when required.
So there is more than meets the eye in Allan Karlsson. While it is unlikely enough to live to one hundred, have all your wits about you, still regularly enjoy a significant amount of vodka, and be able to make a getaway out a window, the episodes of his earlier life relayed to us reveal him to be a key player in some of the most momentous events of the Twentieth Century. Name dropping presidents and despots, following his nose to the next good meal, Allan manages to influence major events and major men in modern history, before quietly moving on because the good vodka has dried up.
The passivity that seems to direct Allan’s life is misleading. He is smarter than he plays, but because of his very simple needs – food, a roof over his head, and vodka – he allows the world to take him in any directions. And these directions seem to take him across almost every major event and every important person in the Twentieth Century. Unbelievable and wonderful, Jonasson weaves some serious history and politics into Allan’s life: a cruel irony because if there is only one thing that Allan can’t stand, it’s politics. He’s tried telling everyone that: Mao Zedong, Stalin, many, many US Presidents, and yet he still seems to get caught up in all this politics business.
This is a well-told story, revealing Allan’s character and mad life to you slowly, teasingly. You read it with a little incredulity, but then it just keeps getting more amazing, and you are pulled into his funny, amazing life. It all seems a bit fabulous and ridiculous but really, the world is full of ridiculous people with thoughts they would never dream of sharing, and Jonsson’s telling of them reveals a kind of secret life behind some of the doddering stereotypes. It is kind of disarmingly charming to be handed a whole book that is knowingly, deliberately silly, and does nothing to address it because that’s just the way the world, or at least Allan’s world, is.
This is a bit of a ridiculous, fabulous story. Kind of unbelievable and kind of charming, you wonder what’s going on with this old old man, who is either a mastermind of the Twentieth Century, or a man who has managed to play some of the luckiest coincidences ever to have happened. Silly, warm and refreshing, despite a little initial friendly incredulity, I actually enjoyed reading the wonderful, mad adventures of this rather individual one hundred year old man.