Sunday, 25 November 2012

The Hundred Year-Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared - maybe the title's too long?

The Hundred Year-Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson (Hesperus Press: 2012). A bizarre tale of a man who traversed the 20th century, inadvertently influencing world events as he goes. As he turns 100, he escapes from his own birthday party to embark on a last adventure, involving a criminal gang, a suitcase full of money, an elephant, and multiple murders.

I’m never sure with translations. I’m a mono-linguist - I can order a cup of coffee in
Germany, but that’s about it. So I have no idea how the process of translating a book goes.

Surely the translator takes on a lot of responsibility for tone and style? “Feel” is an important (if unhelpfully vague) characteristic for a book. How do you make sure you’re getting the same one in both languages? How do you make sure you achieve in English what the writer was going for in Swedish?

I bring this up because as far as “feel” goes, I loved this book. It reminded me strongly of another writer who also relies on translation - Andrey Kurkov. Both Kurkov and Jonasson write with an incredibly spare, matter of fact, short, punchy, frank style. I love it. It’s unadorned and achieves an innocent effect.

It fits perfectly with the straightforwardness of the main protagonists, and it contrasts neatly with the surrealism of the story lines - the bizarre twists and turns. Nothing is heralded with a chorus of trumpets. Everything is simply related as if it’s the most ordinary tale in the world (though of course it’s not).

But are Kurkov and Jonasson two writers with the same style, or do they just have similar translators? Or maybe Swedish and Ukrainian are simply very economic languages, and all Swedish and Ukrainian books are like this? Somebody could probably tell me the answer, but as of right now, I do not know.

I probably shouldn’t care. I should probably have stopped at “I loved this book”.

Whatever the reason for the style and tone, it grabbed me and it didn’t let me go. It’s a long-ish book (around 400 pages), but it didn’t grow old for me (pun entirely intended). I smirked every time Allan Karlsson got out of a tight corner with nothing more than a brand of na├»ve logic. I was intrigued every time he met another world figure without showing an ounce of awe. I grew fonder of him every time he related his incredibly simple outlook on life. His quirks and the quirks of those around him entertained me from beginning to end. The end itself was perhaps a little drawn out, with Jonasson continuing to mutter on for a few pages after the story itself was clearly finished, but I'll forgive him that.

I know people who disagree. I know people who got irritated with the lack of plausibility. People who feel this is a book with a neat trick which it plays far too many times. And I can see their point. That’s the problem with absurdity - it can have a short shelf life. But tell that to Dickens and the Pickwick Papers. Tell that to Evelyn Waugh andto  P.G. Wodehouse. If it’s done well, a little farce can go a long way.

I really enjoyed Andrey Kurkov when I first found him. Jonasson seems a pretty close contemporary of his. OK, so I don’t have the same feel that I’ve uncovered a hidden gem - this book has been in the hand of a lot of commuters in the last few months. But that didn’t take the shine off for me.

Bottom line - I enjoyed reading this, and I hope you will too.


Deserves at least as much as Death and the Penguin.

Next week, I may have to enny-meeny-miny-mo it. I have another Kurkov lined up waiting to be read, and Tom Wolfe is staring at me menacingly from my book shelf as well.


Kiara Jayne Ruggiero said...

Glad to see you read the book I suggested! It was definitely one of the funniest books I've read this year! The incredulity of the plot made it all the more interesting - it's definitely not your typical everyday book.

I can't wait to see what you decide to review next week, perhaps something with a less dark tone to balance it out? ;)


Gav Collins said...

Thanks Kiara. Keep the suggestions coming!