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Friday, October 05, 2012 12:00 PM
Perhaps US Vice-President Harry Truman never met a waiter who solved the sticking point of the atomic bomb for Robert Oppenheimer, and was so impressed that he invited him to a private dinner. Perhaps, over many rounds of tequila, Truman never became so relaxed that he amused his tablemate with impressions of President Roosevelt attempting to exit his wheelchair.
And, perhaps, that tablemate had not previously dined with the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco and thus was inclined to view the American's invitation with equanimity, assuming all world leaders were apt to invite you to eat with them when you did something they liked.
But even if none of these events ever happened, I savoured Jonas Jonasson's pretension that they did, in one of the hundreds of vignettes and anecdotes that comprise his debut novel, a riot of charm and warmth titled The One-Hundred-Year-Old Man who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared.
This is precisely what Allan Karlsson does, with a calm and unpremeditated absence of haste, one hour before the scheduled celebration of his hundredth birthday at a party to be attended by such luminaries as the local mayor. His abode is the Old Folks’ Home in the town of Malmköping, which he leaves behind with the same grace and rapidity he applies to the purloining of a suitcase at the bus station. It belongs to a young man and is filled with ill-gotten cash. Thus the genre mash-up begins: The One-Hundred-Year-Old Man binds a straightforward fugitive story (in pursuit of Allan are crims, cops and press) to a Forrest Gump-esque biography, as Allan’s backroom roles in several momentous historical events are revealed.
Allan isn’t a bad man, but one possessed of an eye for the main chance and the luck of the gods (he breaks bread not only with the aforementioned notable figures, but Lyndon Johnson, Charles de Gaulle and Josef Stalin. When he displeases the latter with an unfortunate song choice, he is dispatched to a Gulag camp, but one located in comparatively temperate Vladivostok. It does nothing to shorten his life.)
Allan’s remarkable odyssey seems to fulfil the promise of his genes. The only child of a mercurial father, an energetic socialist who started out attempting to ignite revolution in Sweden and came a cropper shortly after setting off to depose Nicholas II of Russia, Allan exists as a kind of nomadic savant, with even missteps leading to more good fortune.
He has a knack for honing gifts that pay off in crucial moments; the expertise in nitroglycerine he develops during World War I has its reward during a 1945 dinner at Los Alamos, at which Allan (who is waiting on the table of scientists charged with creating the atomic bomb) matter-of-factly points out how the explosion can be controlled.
Though much of the novel is comprised of well-composed set pieces – a series of deaths becomes increasingly outlandish, and Allan’s Significant Encounters stay on the right side of plausible – its success lies in Jonasson’s ability to knit a cogent, whole text. His background in journalism and media consulting shows not only in his favouring of political and historical themes; The One-Hundred-Year-Old Man is an uncommonly confident and engaging first work of fiction.
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