‘Dumb’ is a prolifically-used adjective on the Goodreads page for this book. I take issue with this. Ludicrous, definitely; perhaps stupid; but not ‘dumb’. A ripping yarn if there ever was one, Jonasson’s novel is not only a 400-page exercise in suspending disbelief, but one for the abdominals too. I read it on holiday about four years ago, but when I rashly seized this month’s review commission with absolutely nothing in mind, it was the one I wanted to return to – even though I had to skim it essay crisis style. It is well-known, alongside Jonasson’s other success The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden, and the title (like all his titles) is about as euphemistic as describing the twentieth-century political landscape of the plot as ‘a bit of a tricky situation’.
Not lost in translation from the Swedish is Jonasson’s nonchalant narrative voice, which is considerably at odds with the ridiculous events of the plot. Forrest Gump-esque, the old ‘your grandpa has stories to tell’ trope is put to shame. (I’m not putting Forrest Gump to shame of course). In a backwater Swedish town in 2005, a man escapes from his retirement home to avoid his hundredth birthday party. Upon unknowingly making off with a suitcase of drug money while its owner makes a quick bathroom pit stop, he ends up holed up in a safe-house with a farrago of dubious characters, pursued by the police, the inept drug gang (who call themselves ‘The Violence’ but sport jackets advertising ‘The Violins’), and the news camera of the nation. Allan’s unruffled attitude towards everything from manslaughter to multiple martinis, and his appreciation of the simple pleasures in life, becomes clear through flashbacks which reveal his immediate involvement in several major events of the twentieth century. He may be a ‘political idiot’ – Jonasson’s words – but his cool head, as Jonasson confessed himself, is strangely therapeutic.
The man who shuffled rheumatically out of his window turns out to be an explosives expert who’s had his finger in more pies than Paul Hollywood. His ability to hold his liquor, build bombs and negotiate dealt him a lucky hand during the wars of the last century. Embassy-hopper and unfussy ally, Allan is in high demand from world leaders. I won’t spoil, but they span the whole range of virtue. Most cheering are his tequila-fuelled camaraderie with Truman – showing ‘what a couple of bottles of tequila can do for international relations’ – and his friendship with the markedly unintelligent Herbert Einstein (Albert’s fictional brother) in a Vladivostok gulag. Allan’s ordinariness in the throne-rooms of the elite provides an endearing and alternative insight into the maelstrom of twentieth-century international relations. Jonasson adds colour and spark to major historical events, largely through the problematic suggestion that all major political decisions were made under the influence. Also questionable is Allan’s skewed moral compass. However, ‘Allan Karlsson didn’t ask much of life. He just wanted a bed, lots of food, something to do, and now and then a glass of vodka.’ He’s more or less content in the gulag (apart from the shortage of vodka). I’m all for accepting what life throws at you, but perhaps I’d draw the line in more than a few of Allan’s cases. The book is not bare farce, though: Jonasson burlesques the hypocrisy of world leaders and the shaky foundations of some of their decisions. Plus, Allan’s own standards are hardly the ones to hold yourself to.
If you’re easily tried by the ‘unrealistic’, this probably seems unappealing. But the novel shines a hilarious, thought-provoking, unfamiliar light on the politics of history, and our experience as fallible people. Maybe ‘dumb’ is exactly what we need. Can’t things be ‘dumb’ sometimes? Can nonsense not be the most heartwarming and the most serious, and the best? I’m thinking Alice in Wonderland, The Jumblies, The Master and Margarita, and nonsense grandmaster Oscar Wilde. The world is ridiculous and chaotic. Escapism through wild exaggeration and a bit of mockery is always a welcome comfort.