By ‘absolutely must’ I mean ‘might like to’, of course.
The long winter draws in, brittle and dry as a glamour model’s hair extensions. A chill wind fumbles with forlorn Christmas decorations that punctuate the street like misplaced apostrophe’s. The book sits on my shelf staring at me, reproach in its spine, reminding me that I promised to lend it out and yet have consistently failed to do so. The book is a Victorian orphan peering sadly through the toyshop window, abandoned and alone.
I’m sorry, book. Would you forgive me, book?
The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out Of His Window And Disappeared is the debut novel by Jonas Jonasson.
Allan Karlsson is 100 years old. But rather than celebrate his centenary in the warm, fuzzy confines of his nursing home he clambers out the window and begins a journey across his native Sweden the book’s blurb describes as ‘picaresque’. This maundering and murderous voyage is interspersed with an account of Allan’s life to date, in which it turns out that he was present at a number of the 20th century’s key moments.
Picaresque, in case you were as unaware of its meaning as I was until right this second, means: of or relating to rascals or rogues.
The professionals claim that the rules are simple: edit, edit some more. Be prepared to kill your darlings; avoid clichéd turns of phrase like ‘kill your darlings’. Adjectives are not your friends, nor are similes or puns. Especially not puns – the only thing less acceptable than a pun is an exclamation mark! Metaphors should be treated, at best, with suspicion and sentences should be succinct and to the point. One subject to a sentence, please. On the subject of succinctness, writing is not an excuse to show off the breadth of your vocabulary, and likewise you should resist the temptation to write in jargon, dialect or argot. Your characters say things, sometimes they may shout if the circumstances are appropriate: they do not exclaim, intimate, demand or do anything else that suggests you’ve engaged in the act of writing, which is gauche.
‘The professionals’ may never have heard of Gustave Flaubert or James Joyce but they would approve of Jonas Jonasson if writers weren’t all consumed by paralysing envy.
Hundred Year Old Man’s prose style is straightforward and almost child-like in its simplicity, which neatly reflects the character of the protagonist. This is not to say the book or its hero is/are simple-minded – there is a difference between simplicity and stupidity. Rather, the book aims at, and achieves, the sort of utilitarian legibility that Ikea instruction manuals tend to lack. I’m assuming that it was faithfully translated into English.
For those of you who are less pretentious than moi, Hemingway’s iceberg theory of writing runs that the words on the page should be the tip of the iceberg; most of the meaning lies beneath the surface and should be inferred by the reader rather than explicitly stated by the writer. Hundred Year Old Man is that sort of novel, although it’s arguably a bit too irreverent for that sort of chin stroking analysis (give that man a Booker prize).
The plot zips along as quickly as the body count mounts, its gentle (if a little black) humour obscuring the serious points – cotton candy with a hook in it.
It’s a holiday read you won’t need to hide on an ebook. For best results, team it up with a tall glass of something alcoholic that isn’t some form of banana liquor and doesn’t come with an umbrella. Preferably vodka based.
Scandinavian books, films and tv shows often tend towards dark and gloomy – bleak affairs that can weigh a little heavy. Hundred Year Old Man is not that – in fact if there’s a criticism it’s that it risks coming off as rather lightweight; impressive flights of imagination that quickly become a little self-conscious, even repetitive at times. In a word: superficial.
That’s not how I read it, though.
If you go to bed every night clutching an F Scott Fitzgerald collection to your bosom, the prose might not suit your taste. If you like your fiction to come with lashings of overt literary pretension, likewise. For everyone else it’s easy on the eye, it’s got a lot of charm and you might learn something without once feeling like you’re being lectured.
Take me for example: I learned the meaning of the word ‘picaresque’.