“If you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort the heavier the world bore down on his shoulders—what would you tell him to do?” ”To shrug.” - Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where the title so accurately sums up the entire book. The setting is Sweden, and that’s just a backdrop to the narrative – the life and adventures of a very unlikely hero – Alan Karlsson – a man who ran away from his old people’s home (via a ground floor window) and “disappeared”. Now unlike the poor people at the home, we the readers are privy to what he does next: setting out on a journey where he steals a suitcase which turns out to contain a fortune that was paid over to a group of bikers by a Russian organized crime syndicate as payment for a drug deal. Following this bit of jolly good fun, there’s a hard-to-believe but just so amazing that you can’t help yourself story of drug dealers trying to get back their money, and the local police starting a Sweden’s Most Wanted-type hunt for Allan, who has, by now, been declared a triple-murderer.
As the book progresses, a bunch of really interesting but uniquely flawed characters (and also an elephant) somehow manage to join Allan on this tour-de-force, staying one step ahead of the police throughout the book, and cultivating lasting bonds of friendship at the same time. Flashbacks of Allan’s life and how he somehow, completely by happenstance, managed to be in the right place at the wrong time and helped influence a number of events and changed the course of twentieth century history are sprinkled throughout the novel.
One of the first things that came to mind when I finished the book was that it had ended up being much longer than I had initially expected, because how much can you really expect from an 100-year-old gentleman who climbs out of a window?
Well, Jonasson proved me wrong, for Allan Karlsson is not your typical 100-year-old man, and this book will prove it to you. In some reviews about this book, people have compared Karlsson to Forrest Gump. I beg to differ. Throughout the time I was reading the book, I didn’t once thought of Forrest Gump, or make any comparisons. (Maybe I haven’t seen Forrest Gump enough times).
I enjoyed reading this book because it’s very cleverly snarky, and with so many historical figures thrown in you’ll lose track of how Allan came into contact with them. For history buffs, this is a joy ride for the mind. From President Truman, to Johnson, to Nixon, and then across the world to Mao Tse-Tung, Kim Il-sung AND Kim Jong-il, their Communist frenemies Stalin, and Brezhnev, Allan’s story is unbelievable and over-the-top. But the fact remains that, sometimes, life can be so unbelievable, it has to be true.
The book follows Allan through his past and present adventures and makes the reader feel kind of bad that they haven’t had a coffee with at least ONE former communist leader (what kind of life have I been leading, anyway??) unlike Allan, who has sung, danced, drank, ate, AND had coffee – with a lot of them. Add to that Allan’s love for vodka, his gift of gab, and know-how with explosives, and you got yourself a story-teller par excellence. His story is all our stories at one time or other, (except for the absurdly funny murders of characters who had it coming) and I can’t wait for another book from Jonasson.
It is no accident this book sold over 750.000 copies in Sweden, where it also won the Swedish Booksellers Award and has been in the Dutch bestseller’s list for nearly a year.
“I shall destroy capitalism! Do you hear! I shall destroy every single capitalist! And I shall start with you, you dog, if you don’t help us with the bomb!’
Allan noted that the had managed to be both a rat and a dog in the course of a minute or so. And that Stalin was being rather inconsistent, because now he wanted to use Allan’s services after all.
“There are only two things I can do better than most people. One of them is to make vodka from goats’ milk, and the other is to put together an atom bomb.”
“Allan thought it sounded unnecessary for the people in the seventeenth century to kill each other. If they had only been a little patient they would all have died in the end anyway.
“Julius didn’t want to use the freezer unnecessarily because it used a hell of a lot of electricity. Julius had of course hot-wired it, and it was Gösta at Forest Cottage farm who unknowingly paid, but it was important to steal electricity in moderation if you wanted to keep taking advantage of the perk for a long time.”