This book was published in 2009 in Sweden, but has had a spike of interest because a film of the book, advertised as a comedy, was released in Australia in 2014. Our book club thought it might be nice to read something a bit more cheerful than we had been doing, and tried this. But it wasn’t one of our better choices.
Jonas Jonasson apparently said he wrote the book because he thought the title was so good it needed a story to go with it. The window which the hero, Allan Karlsson, climbs out of is that of the nursing home to which he has recently been relegated, and I agree that the idea of escape from a nursing home is pretty appealing. But for me the joke ends there. What follows is a picaresque series of adventures, during which Allan gains a fortune, a group of friends and finally a wife. The narrative is interspersed with flashbacks to his past life, during which he met some of the twentieth century’s major players, including General Franco, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-tung and Harry Truman, and played a role in some of the century’s major events.
Some of what happens might be funny in a film – for example the role of the elephant – but I didn’t find it funny on the page. The book has been very popular; some people must find it charming. I just found it silly. So silly that I assumed it must be satire. Now I am very dense when it comes to satire; I need to understand clearly what is being sent up. I thought at first that Jonasson was echoing Voltaire’s Candide, where everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds – even when the reverse is actually true. Allan is an expert in explosives, and has a hand in creating the atomic bomb. Surely the capacity to destroy humanity is being set against his optimism – his ‘unstoppable ability to look on the bright side’? There are other similarities to Candide too – the picaresque nature of the story, the somewhat sadistic treatment of enemies, the matter-of-fact tone, and the fact that the story deals with events of the time. (You can read about the original Candide here.) But there are major differences. There is no tutor Panglos urging optimism; Allan is his own Panglos. He emerges unscathed from his adventures; there are no terrible outcomes for him or his friends as there are in Candide. In other words, despite his capacity for destruction, his optimism is rewarded – after all we know from the start that he lives to be a healthy 100-year old. This surely isn’t satire.
If not satire then what? We all sat around trying to drag some deeper meaning from the book. Maybe the story is intended to be absurd in the philosophical sense of absurd, where human purpose meets, in Camus’s phrase ‘the unreasonable silence of the world’? But Allan ‘had never been given to pondering things too long’ – he doesn’t seem to have much purpose, and certainly doesn’t try and see any purpose in the world; he accepts whatever will be will be. Naivety and simplicity win out. Is the book a sort of Swedish Forrest Gump, where: ‘Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get’. Forrest Gump makes history in extraordinary ways, through a series of accidents and happenstance, just as Allan does. We also thought of Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There, where Chance, the simple-minded gardener, almost by accident becomes Chauncey Gardiner, Presidential candidate. (Being There is well known for being Peter Sellars’s last film). But Allan is not simple-minded like either of these characters. Is he more like Jaroslav Hašek’s hero in The Good Soldier Švejk? Švejk appears to be ingenuous, but is actually very clever at getting his own way; this is also true of Allan. But it’s drawing rather a long bow to make the comparison. We even wondered if Allan’s oft-stated lack of interest in politics or religion was meant to be significant; after all, by just being friendly and pleasant, he plays a major role, so he says, in dampening down the tensions of the Cold War.
Perhaps the moral of this post is that there is not any deeper meaning in the book, and that we shouldn’t be trying to create one. It doesn’t have to have some cosmic message, or to fit into some literary tradition. It is what it is – which in my opinion, isn’t up to much.
You can read a little more about Jonas Jonasson here. This was his first book; his second, The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden (2014), is in a similar vein. I note that the publisher’s description says it’s written in the ‘same light-hearted satirical voice’ as his first novel, so maybe I was right first time about the satire being there, whether I could see it or not. You can read here a very much more favourable review of the book from The Guardian, where it was nominated by readers for the Guardian First Book Award. It didn’t make the short-list though.