This heartwarming and hilarious novel starts on the day Allan turns 100. He doesn’t want to celebrate his 100th birthday, so he escapes his Old Folks Home through the window of his first floor room. In his bedroom slippers. After that, his life takes an unexpected turn. He becomes an impromptu thief, dodges gangsters and the police, collects friends, including an elephant, dives headlong into one escapade after another, and ends up... Well, that would be a spoiler. Let’s say he is still alive and kicking by the last page.
The book incorporates two independent subplots with alternating chapters. One line documents Allan’s current journey from the Old Folks Home towards his new adventures. Another line follows his life, from his poor working class childhood to the moment of his escape from the aforementioned Old Folks Home. And what a life!
Born in 1905 in Sweden, he quits school at 10 to start working at a small explosives factory near his home. By his late teens, he develops a strong antipathy towards politics of any kind and a deep understanding of the chemistry and mechanics of explosives. After that, despite his apolitical stance, he is swept along by the turbulent political winds of the century.
From the racist Sweden clinic specializing in neutering undesired elements to the Spanish civil war; from the US president’s oval office to the Gulag prison camp, Allan travels the world, makes friends wherever he goes, and gets into and out of trouble with the ease of a regular rogue. Along the way, he learns Spanish, English, Russian, and Chinese, chemistry and physics, plus all the possible ways to blow things up. Including an atomic bomb. But he never takes himself too seriously. Never gives up, no matter how desperate his situation is. Never gets angry. He invariably displays the courage of a hero, the verve of an incurable optimist, the brainpower of a genius, and the kindness of a true man.
His character is one of the most charming I’ve read about lately. I truly admired the guy. Actually I liked everything about this novel: its protagonist, its global scope, its hectic pace, its unbelievable story, its irreverent attitude towards the powerful of the world, and its irresistible humor.
Only an author possessing of a wicked sense of the ridiculous could make a murder hilarious. It involved an elephant, and I laughed so hard my eyes teared up. Anyway, the one murdered was a gangster with a gun, the only one who was armed in the scene, if you discounted the elephant, but she didn’t have a gun either.
Overall, it was an ambitious book flavored with history, encompassing the geography of the entire world, and reflecting many pivoting events of the 20th century. And Allan was in the middle of them all. The author handled his epic novel with amazing panache, and his joy in writing transmitted itself to its millions of grateful readers.