Wednesday 7 January 2015

Reliable people don't drink fruit juice

Usually I read books and suggest them to other people. Monkey has been reading 'The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared' by Jonas Jonasson for a couple of weeks, and has been telling me how crazy it is and that I have to read it. Sending her copy is apparently too complicated for her busy life so after work on Saturday I checked the catalogue and finding an available copy in Chorlton library I went to pick it up. I plonked myself on the sofa and started reading at about 3.30pm, and finished it about 12.30am on Sunday. It is crazy. My evening was punctuated by texting her with random quotes and updates on where I was in the story. I had intended to go to bed much earlier, but by the time I was thinking of doing so I was too far into the book to give up.

Allan, as it turns out, is not your average crotchety old geezer, and his reaction to the idea of a birthday party without vodka is utterly understandable. He sets off on an adventure, and as we discover, it's not his first; Allan has had quite an eventful life already. One part of the story follows the hundred year old Allan as he boards a bus with someone else's suitcase, meeting up along the way with Julius, Benny, Gunilla aka The Beauty, and Sonya the elephant. The other interspersed chapters tell us the rest of Allan's life story that led up to the day of the birthday party escape. He starts out just an ordinary kid who's dad ran off to join the communists (and gave him an intense dislike for politics) but he becomes a major player in international relations of the twentieth century. It was like some kind of comedy version of Any Human Heart, it is uses the same technique of integrating the character's life into real, well known historical events, although unlike Logan Mountstuart, who remains on the periphery, Allan takes on a much more proactive role. So he bounces round the world, rubbing shoulders with pretty much every major political figure of the century. He escapes almost certain death at least a dozen times, sometimes by talking his way out, sometimes by making himself useful, but mostly because he does good turns for people as he goes along ... and good karma always pays off. 

Allan is a lovely complex character. He is clever, resourceful and self-reliant. Allan is very much a people person, he makes friends easily wherever he goes, even though they frequently end up dead. He is ultimately reliable but also has his own agenda and won't allow himself to be used by stupid people. But in some ways you could see him as a bit of an idiot; he is very impulsive, acting 99% of the time without considering the consequences of his actions. He seems to like a quiet life, but unwittingly allows himself to be sucked in to all sorts of dangerous situations. His life philosophy, handed down from his mother seems to be 'que sera, sera', he doesn't have high expectation and just gets on with the disasters when they happen. The five years in a soviet labour camp just fly by with that attitude, and it's only the lack of vodka that really spurs him to risk an escape plan. Along with Einstein's illegitimate brother (not a real person) he blows up Vladivostok (possibly not a real event, but who knows) and ends up in North Korea, and only makes it back to civilization because of the occasion when he saved the life of Mao's wife Jiang Qing when she was in the hands of Soong May-ling (not a real event from what I can find). It is precisely his naive trust of human nature that both gets him in to, and out of, most of the sticky situations. And vodka of course. Vodka is a very useful tool. 

"The little boy grew up and added his own opinions to those he had acquired from his parents. Priests and politicians  were equally bad, Allan thought, and it didn't make the slightest difference if they were communists, fascists, capitalists or any other political persuasion. But he did agree with his father that reliable people didn't drink fruit juice. And he agreed with his mother that you had to make sure you behaved, even if you had drunk a bit more than was wise.
In practical terms, that meant that during the course of the river journey Allan had lost interest in helping Soong May-ling and her twenty drunken soldiers (in fact there were only nineteen left since one had fallen overboard and drowned). Nor did he want to be around when the soldiers raped the prisoner who was now locked up below deck, regardless of whether she was a communist or not, and of who her husband was.
Allan sat down with the guard and suggested that they should have a drink.
'Never try to out drink a Swede, unless you happen to be a Finn or at least a Russian.'
The bomb expert, Allan Karlsson, the mess boy Ah Ming, and the eternally grateful communist leader's wife, Jiang Qing, slipped away from the riverboat under cover of darkness and were soon in the mountains where Jiang Qing had already spent much time together with her husband's troops. The Tibetan nomads in the area knew her and the fugitives had no problems eating their fill even after the supplies carried by Ah Ming had run out. The Tibetans had good reason, or so they thought, for being on friendly terms with the People's Liberation Army. It was generally assumed that if the communists won the struggle for China, Tibet would immediately gain its independence." (p. 135-7)

I liked this quote because it sums up both Allan's attitude, and the attitude of the author. He helps other people just because they need it, without reservation or expectation of repayment. And then you get the not-so-subtle comment about the fate of Tibet, that shows the author tends to share Allan's approach to politics.

"The solution, said Allan, was often to down a bottle of vodka together and then look ahead. But now there was an unfortunate problem in that Benny was a teetotaller. Allan could, of course, look after Benny's share of the vodka, but he didn't think it would be quite the same thing.
'So a bottle of vodka would solve the Israel-Palestine conflict?' asked Bosse. 'That stretches all the way back to the Bible.'
'For that particular conflict you mention, it is not impossible that you would need more than one bottle,' Allan answered. 'But the principle is the same.' " (p.197)

In the other half of the tale there is a small gang of gangsters who want their suitcase back, and the police detective who is heading the hunt for the missing elderly gentleman (believed possibly an abductee, but then subsequently a murder suspect), all of whom are in hot pursuit of the newly formed tribe of miscreants; going on the run with an elephant is definitely something only the truly desperate would contemplate. 

Ok, I really don't want to give away anything else about plot, and anyway it's far to complicated to explain. From getting drunk with Harry Truman, to suggesting Stalin shave his moustache and comforting the very young Kim Jong Il Allan certainly has an eventful time of it. And so, as the story comes full circle, you can fully appreciate why he climbed out of the window at the prospect of a birthday party in an old people's home. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. It is an excellent book and rightly deserves it's billing.


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