Saturday, September 20, 2014

A Centenarian From Sweden

On Thursday, I picked up a novel from the bookstore while having some minor time to kill (I was taking my mother around to a few appointments). Intrigued, I read some of the first chapter.

As a result I ended up buying it and finishing it last night by half past one in the morning. The book was titled The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared.

It's a book that was published in Sweden, and written by a Swedish author, about a Swedish man who comes from said country. In my experience the novel isn't the first neat or interesting or nice thing to come from that place; in my childhood, although produced by a Canadian animation company, I enjoyed the adventures of Pippi Longstocking while at another point hearing 'The Sign' by Ace of Base playing in the background out in the yard. While I don't like all of ABBA's songs, they have talent and international recognition and presence, and that music video by Robyn is yet just another image/sound from my childhood. Even that silly-sounding 'Lovefool' song is Swedish. Roxette has the look as well as the sound. And finally, while I have never tried out the whole The Girl With...series, I have this work of literature under my belt as a fun, interesting, humorous read. The country is probably the next one after Canada, the UK, and the US to provide my life with good music, cartoons (perhaps Canadian-made but Swedish-originated/set) and literature.

The novel goes forward in two ways: One chapter details main character Allan Karlsson's life and activities in the present (which in the book is May 2005) just after his 100th birthday. The next chapter covers his life over several years in a prior decade, telling his life story from the beginning. This goes in a sort of present-past-present-past arrangement in chapters so you get a story of what's happening now combined with how he got to now since his birth in May 1905.

Spoiler alert below.

Allan Karlsson's life is pretty eventful. He is born to a father whose views are considered unconventional and unaccepted, and these outspoken views lead the family to become looked upon adversely. After his father dies in Russia near the same time Tsar Nicholas II and his family are killed, his mother goes to work providing firewood to a wholesaler who is suspicious of young Allan (thanks to his relation to his 'crazy' father), who himself goes to work in an explosives factory. This leads to the teenager creating his own company after his mother dies soon after. He combines different materials together to create different reactions and tests these new explosives in a pit behind the house, upon which the wholesaler who still feels nervous towards the young man accidentally crashes into it in his brand new car. Allan accidentally blows the man up, leading to his being put into an asylum and sterilized.

Having absolutely no political opinion or interest whatsoever, or any religious interests, Allan eventually gets released and befriends a Spanish man in a foundry he finds work at as a rare ignition specialist thanks to his background. They end up leaving together for Spain, where his friend, very political by contrast, ends up immediately killed in the civil war. With nothing better to do, he offers to blow up bridges for the socialist army his friend was in as long as he can wear his own jacket; near the end, having set up a custom where no one is killed in the explosions he detonates, he ends up saving General Franco from being killed when he crosses a bridge about to go; because he looks like a civilian, Franco ends up taking him to dinner (by this point Allan has learned Spanish) and he switches sides immediately in a war he has no opinion or knowledge or understanding of. The war ends the next day, and with the help of Franco (who gives him his unconditional protection) he sets out on a ship that ends up in New York.

Thereafter he sits in a US prison for several years while immigration tries to figure out what to do with a Franco supporter; by 1943, thanks to his explosives expertise, he ends up in Los Alamos, where he serves coffee to people like Oppenheimer. Researching the atom on his own in his free time (while learning English) he ends up figuring out how to split the atom himself, which he explains to Oppenheimer while filling his coffee mug; thereafter he spends dinner with vice president Truman, upon which Roosevelt passes away at the same time, in 1945. When Truman becomes president, he asks Allan to work with a woman called Soong Mei-ling, the wife of the anti-communist leader of the Koumintang in China. His intended job is to once again explode bridges to stop the mobile movement of the Communist contingent led by Mao Tse-tung in the Chinese civil war. While there, all he witnesses are the soldiers getting drunk and chasing after local women in every harbour they stop at. Eventually they capture Mao Tse-tung's wife, which they intend to rape repeatedly while captured, so with the ship cook (who had converted to communism through observing what Allan also sees), Allan simply escapes with her and runs away, not interested in hanging around while still not interested in any side of the war. They return Mao's wife to him in the mountains, upon which Allan decides to go home - except the only possible way, from his perspective, is to walk.

The months go by as he treks across the Himalayas, often going in the wrong direction, until he comes across a couple of strangers on camels and befriends them. They make their way to Iran, with the men trying to make Allan into a Marxist and failing completely. By 1947 they reach Iran, wherein the two men are immediately shot for their political leanings and Allan is taken to Tehran and imprisoned in a secret police headquarters. A year later he manages to escape by thwarting the police chief's plan to murder Winston Churchill (who had made him feel put-upon after the handling of an assistant-secretary at the British Embassy). He simply causes his coffee cup to explode, which causes the explosive under the armoured car to explode, making the whole building collapse and letting Allan and a crazy Anglican priest (bent on converting the entire country) to escape. At the Swedish Embassy, Allan calls the White House to ask Truman to ask the Swedish Prime Minister to tell the embassy official to give Allan a passport and a way home, and he ends up in the same plane as Winston Churchill en route.

Back in Stockholm, the Prime Minister, having heard from Truman Allan's contribution to the atomic bomb in Los Alamos, tries to set him up with the Swedish atomic program, but the director's way of interview and questioning fails towards Allan in highlighting his actual skills and experience, so after returning to Stockholm, he is approached by a Russian physicist with a similar personality and interests, and thereafter joins him on a submarine to Moscow. They drink a little too much together, causing Allan to slip a bit of info on atomic energy (but not being too explicit); they end up having dinner with Stalin, which fails after Allan quotes a poem by an author that Stalin knows is anti-communist. Between 1947 and 1953 he does time at a working prison camp at Vladivostock with who turns out to be Einstein's younger half-brother Herbert, who also turns out to be extremely dimwitted.

After an escape from the compound (the sobriety had finally gotten to him) Allan and Herbert end up in Bali in Indonesia, after running into Mao Tse-tung in North Korea while impersonating Russian Marshal Meretskov (while the Marshal and his aid were trying to get a better view of the burning Vladivostock in the distance, Allan and Herbert managed to sneak up on their car, take their weapons, and ask them to remove their uniforms). They stay there for fifteen years, Allan mainly just for vacation time. Herbert falls in love with the hotel waitress (equally dumb) and with the money provided by Mao, he has his wife become elected governor of the island through political bribery and other schemes; vacation ends for Allan when "Amanda" (Herbert's wife's new name thanks to Herbert not being able to pronounce or remember her actual name) asks him to be her interpreter in France thanks to a new diplomatic position in the embassy there. While there, Allan recognizes the assistant to the French Interior minister as the Russian interpreter from his dinner with Stalin, realizes he's a spy, and notifies the French President, impressing American President Lyndon Johnson, also there for the diplomatic lunch. Having dinner together, Allan admits that he indirectly gave Stalin 'the bomb' as he did for the US (thanks to saying too much to his recruiting friend on the submarine over vodka) and as a result Johnson has him become a spy and puts him back in Moscow.

Until 1982, with the help of turning his old submarine friend Yuri Borisovich (who did figure out how to split the atom thanks to that and became medal-honoured under Kruschev and Brushnev) both of them act as spies for the CIA, sending out information that ranges between fact and fiction, and therefore directing how each president reacts in turn. Allan meets Nixon early on while presenting information, and the two share a coffee together; Nixon asks how Indonesian politics work thanks to his ties with Amanda and his experience down there, and Allan's explanation inspires the president, suggested in the novel to have inspired his actions in the Watergate Scandal. Thanks to Reagan's anti-communistic personality, Yuri and Allan present information that suggests the Soviet Union is gaining strength in its resources, leading to the eventual ending of the cold war. They both decide to stop in 1982, with Yuri and his wife dying a year later in New York, happy, and Allan returning, finally, to Sweden, with an overdue salary from the CIA. Throughout all this he's become fluent in, other than his native tongue of Swedish, English, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, and Indonesian.

His life from then on to the present becomes boring and his only companion is a kitten that grows into an old cat that is eventually killed by a persistent fox. Allan, now 99 and angry and sad for the first time ever, decides to use explosives to kill it. He accidentally detonates his entire collection, destroying his property and sending him to the old folk's home. Decided to die that first night (he hates having no control in the home) he doesn't and instead just waits for his 100th birthday in the months to come.

His actual birthday is when the novel's present setting begins; an hour prior to the celebration (which includes the Mayor of Malmkoping) he decides to start life all over, exits through the window, waits at a bus station, steals a suitcase while the owner is in the bathroom, boards a bus, and begins the whole adventure that includes a criminal organization, a petty prosecutor, a hotdog stand owner, an elephant, and a yellow bus, and which finally ends back in Bali.

The entire story is very much like a constant adventure mixed with extensive travels. The only continents Allan has never set foot in are South America, Africa and Australia. In the present he decides to sort of go on the run (from the home, anyway) and this turns into an escape that creates a growing entourage of new friends and accidental deaths. Allan Karlsson has dinner or meetings with no fewer than eleven political leaders or notable people, ranging from General Franco, Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, Mao Tse-tung, Richard Nixon, Robert Oppenheimer, Charles de Gaul, and Lyndon Johnson. At the same time, he has absolutely no political ideas or opinions, or leanings. He literally just goes where the action, bed, food, and vodka is. He instantly switches sides throughout the wars or conflicts of the 20th century several times simply because he could care less about what ideologies were apparent and more about whether he'll get dinner. Or a good drink.

At the same time, the novel is pretty funny, specifically how the author will return to scenes involving people Karlsson has screwed up - for instance, "Bolt," whose suitcase Allan stole (the scene that got me to buy the novel), or Russian Marshal Kiril Meretskov, whom Allan single-handedly steals a medal-covered uniform and car from. As a result he has to spend several hours with his aid walking to the burning remains of Vladivostock in a prison uniform, and thereafter five days to get a new uniform and car in order to pursuit Allan. There are moments or actions or time-coincidences in the novel that hang almost on the absurd. It's quite imaginative.

I would recommend reading it (if you didn't simply just read the hastily-written, badly-worded synopsis I wrote above) as it's funny, inspiring, and interesting. It lightly covers a lot of world-changing events throughout the last 109 years in a good style that is easy to read and often simple and funny. Allan Karlsson is portrayed as an extremely mild-mannered individual who has endless positivity but at the same time does what he wants regardless of what might keep him somewhere. To get Yuri Borisovich's attention, a friend he hadn't seen for over twenty years, he stands outside an opera house in Moscow that he knows he'll be attending with a giant sign that says "I am Allan Emanuel Karlsson" despite the KGB officers also leaving the building (they of course think that such blatant obviousness would be idiotic and dismiss the person with the sign).

The book almost makes me want to be able to do that sort of thing in my life, travel, learn several languages, have some sort of influence. That would be pretty neat, at least to see the world anyway. I have very little issue with anything in the novel but for Allan's hugely uneventful life between 1982 and 2005; it's like the novel wanted to focus on world events from the first half of the 20th century rather than the latter, with Allan merely spending fifteen years starting from the 1950s on vacation in Bali. There's that, a minor meeting and lunch in Paris, and then a little more than a decade of spying before he returns home to look after a cat for the next twenty-three years. Nothing at all is mentioned during that time, at least in terms of world events, and I would have thought it interesting if Allan had somehow, one way or another, participated in the fall of the Berlin Wall perhaps, or the Tiananmen Square protests around the same time. Perhaps he could have decided to visit Cambodia in 1991 before helping/causing trouble for Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia in the latter half of the 90s. Maybe he could have decided to go for a hotdog at a stand across the street from one of those two giant grey buildings in Manhattan a minute before an airliner suddenly tore through the upper half of the skyscraper. Personally I think he would have had a better time of it, but I guess the author did have to give Allan a feeling of starting over again from the nursing home by having made his life rather empty in the last few years. And then again, he would have been eighty by 1985; the main character is portrayed as someone who never really noticed his age or realized he was getting old, but perhaps by that time he was starting to get a little tired. Then again, that doesn't seem to be the case at all when he instantly decides to miss his party, climb through a window, and steal someone's suitcase at one-hundred.

It was a good novel though. It did its job because I had difficulty putting it down (I always tend to binge-read if I like something). I think the author did a good job describing and putting together all the personalities, as well as pinpointing the smallest of events or coincidences in which to insert his main character. The novel mentioned on the back that it was similar to Forrest Gump - had Gump been an explosives expert. Yes, and if Gump had done the majority of his meetings and actions in the first half of the 20th century, not the middle of the second half. That's kind of a funny parallel, because in the movie, Forrest Gump happens to be the reason the Watergate Scandal became the scandal it was, while Allan on the other hand indirectly inspired it. In the movie, right after Gump calls the guard about men with flashlights keeping him up, it cuts to an interview of Nixon on TV announcing that he's resigning two years later. In the novel, the scandal is referenced in summary briefly before Allan says to Nixon's photograph in the paper that he "should have gone in for a career in Indonesia instead. [You] would have gone far there" implying that their conversation (over cognac) inspired Nixon's subsequent actions.

If you want a story with adventure, travel, humour, famous/infamous people, and absurdity, I'd recommend this. As a result I almost want to get out there myself. Maybe go to Gaza. Or the Eastern half of Ukraine. Or Syria.

Nah, I don't know how to explode things.

Red Cloud

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