Friday, November 21, 2014

Review - The One-Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

A good book stays with you forever. Unfortunately, sometimes bad books linger in your unconscious as well.

Today I would like to write a review on the book The One-Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (dare ya' to say that five times real fast!). I had been wanting to read it for quite a while, but when I finally got my own copy... You guessed it: me no likey. Of course, what I express here is nothing more than my personal opinions and frustrations.

Have any of you read this novel? Were you able to finish it? Did you enjoy it? My responses to these questions are: I tried. No. Sort of.

What does the novel have to offer? An interesting premise: On his one-hundredth birthday, Allan Karlsson decides he's had enough of the old people's home he's in and he does just what the title promises--he jumps out the window and (as far as the authorities know) disappears. From here on, he initiates a wild adventure that will, among other things, team him up with an elephant and make him a rich man. As the story progresses, we also learn about his past as an explosives expert, a profession which took him all across the world.

Sounds interesting, doesn't it?

It would be, if the author hadn't gone out of his way to make it BORING.

Let me explain. The novel starts out all right. Karlsson escapes from the old people's home (it's always called just that: "the old people's home." No specific name, no nothing.) and makes his way to the bus station where he encounters a disgruntled youth with bathroom and suitcase problems. In the end, Karlsson gets on a long-distance bus with the young man's suitcase (he just goes ahead and steals it). What's inside? The equivalent to hundreds of thousands of dollars. What happens next is what you'd expect from any centenarian with nothing to lose:

a cold-blooded killing spree.

(And he doesn't even have a shred of guilt about any one of the deaths. Wanna know why? Because good ol' Allan Karlsson is a freaking psychopath!)

Now, I'm not a prude. I've read my share of adventure, sci-fi and fantasy in which blood is poured over several pages. However, what startles me about The One-Hundred-Year-Old Man is:

1) The deaths are obviously meant to be the humorous parts of the story.
2) None of the characters--not Karlsson, not even the other people who eventually team up with him--seem to care the slightest that they are terminating human lives.

Now, you might shake your head and say "But Nadine, get your adjectives straight! You said the story was boring! What's boring about this?" Let me explain: the author apparently does everything he can to make the would-be adventure/killing spree dull.

Would you like an example? The vast majority of the story is told in reported speech:

     They had a late evening at Bellringer Farm with one and all in very good spirits. Amusing stories were trotted out one after the other. Bosse was a hit when he pulled out the Bible and said that now he would tell them the story of how he, quite involuntaringly, came to read the whole book from beginning to end. Allan wondered what devilish method of torture Bosse had suffered, but that wasn't what lay behind it. No outsider had forced Bosse to do anything, No, [sic] Bosse's own curiosity was responsible .
     -- I'm sure I'll never be that curious, said Allan.
     Julius asked whether Allan could stop interrupting Bosse for once so that they could hear the story, and Allan said he could.

This is a typical sequence taken straight out of the novel (page 237 of my edition--cover image above). The problem with using so much reported speech is that readers can't really get a sense of the characters because we can't hear them. We only hear the narrator--whoever that is--explain a story to us.

There are some rare instances where we readers can delight in morsels of direct speech, but the author can't even get that right... Now, this might actually be a translation error, but the dialogue starts off between quotation marks, and then suddenly shifts to em dashes (the same way dialogue is represented in Spanish). Why the sudden change in punctuation? Where's the sense in that?

If the use and abuse of reported speech weren't enough, the author rams certain character details down our throats so many times that "repetitive" becomes an understatement (Karlsson like to drink, Karlsson doesn't care about politics, Karlsson has no sex drive--I get it already! No need to hammer in the character profile every dozen pages!)

The One-Hundred-Year-Old Man has been compared to Forrest Gump in that the character blithely meets the most important political figures of his era and he's oblivious to the significance of the meetings (because he's not interested in politics! Haha! Do you see the hilarity of it all? Do you? ...You don't? Oh.). However, while Forrest Gump is endearing, Allan Karlsson is a self-centered scoundrel. One thing is for Karlsson to have no interest in religion or politics (the author repeatedly informs us of this--several times in each chapter--in case we ever happen to forget), but it's another thing altogether when that character demonstrates alarming sociopathic tendencies. Once again, let me give you an example:

Karlsson is the type of man who spends months (if not years--my memory fails me now) travelling across the Himalayas with a small group, sharing their food, drink and adventures. He is the type of man who befriends these people and goes on about how he loves them. He is also the type of man who stands by and watches as his friends each take a bullet to the brain and then reacts with a curious "I wonder why my friends always end up dying?" To my disgust, he is also the type of man who then shrugs off all love for his deceased companions and proceeds to make friends with the killers--for his own greedy needy benefit, of course.

I hate Allan Karlsson!

This novel has been sold to us as a heartwarming tale. It has even become a full-length motion picture... But heartwarming it is not. To me, it is the story of a man who doesn't care about anyone other than himself. A man who demands a glass of vodka every two or three pages (and that's supposed to be a "ha ha" moment. "Ha ha! A Swede drinking vodka! Brilliant!"). A man who, the way I see it, has lived much longer than he deserved. Couple that with the repetitive reported speech writing style and you've got a pretty nifty paperweight.

I must admit that so far I haven't been able to finish the novel (I'm a little more than halfway through). Even so, I felt the need to express my frustration in a review. I'll try to complete the novel someday, but I won't make any promises.

What about you? Have you read this novel? If so, what is your opinion?


  1. I've always been baffled by the massive success of this novel. Glad to see someone else doesn't see the appeal either.

  2. I have never heard of this book, but I'm now curious of its genre. I agree with the fact that the excerpt you share is terribly boring and drab. Good call!

    1. Haha, I'm glad you liked the excerpt. ;-) Imagine a whole book written this way!

  3. I tried to read it a while ago. Got about six or eight chapters in and I just lost my will to live. I love the idea but I really did not care for the protagonist at all. Glad to see I wasn't the only one.


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