Jonas Jonasson, ‘The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared’

I like to imagine the professional book reviewers of the world rubbing their hands in glee when they read this novel at the thought that it would allow them to demonstrate their knowledge of the word ‘picaresque’.

I’ve been trying to work out why this book appealed to me quite so much. The most obvious reason is that the idea of escaping from a rigorous, joyless care home existence by climbing out of the window and going in search of vodka really hits home in this time of aging populations and uncertain futures. Much as I would love to believe that I will end my days in a care home which allows me to play computer games and watch TV in my room all day while drinking too much red wine, I’m not optimistic that residential care will have advanced that far, or indeed that I would be able to afford it. It’s where we all know we’re headed, and anything which can offer us hope that our geriatric existences will not be as hell-like as we all fear is bound to win friends.

It’s hard not to mention Forrest Gump in connection with this book, so I won’t even try. The events of the twentieth century are seen here not so much through the eyes of limited intelligence (although one character does play that role) as through the eyes of total detachment, and the result is strangely compelling. If you genuinely have no political viewpoint and no ability to comprehend ideologies, then human behaviour in the fields of politics and war becomes almost pleasingly incomprehensible. This novel, through its apolitical hero, allows us to step back, stop trying to empathise and comprehend, and instead view human history in all its full absurdity. And I like the absurd.

I’m not sure how believable it is for a man to be so detached from the concerns of the human race, but it doesn’t really matter. His actions have their own internal logic. In a way, it’s a logical extension of geek-dom: I’m reminded of the Waterhouses in Neal Stephenson’s ‘Cryptonomicon’, who represent all that’s good about the highly intelligent nerd.

I also like this book because it’s refreshingly free from moral absolutes. No-one is judged. There is no hint of the idea that if a character has been ‘bad’ to whatever degree in his past he is not deserving of future happiness and must therefore be given a suitable fate. It’s like the opposite of Dickens.


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