Book reviews 2015: 'The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared' and 'The Fat Years'
I read two very different but very similar books over the Christmas and New Year period, quite without knowing it. I pick books up randomly from the library truck shelves and make my selections mostly based on their covers. Both of these looked interesting for different reasons, and because I wanted something lighthearted I thought I'd begin with the lengthily-titled 'The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared.'
The story follows a 100 year old man, Allan Karlson, who decided to make himself scarce from his nursing home (he didn't like the director much) just hours before his big birthday party. He shuffles to the nearest bus station, randomly steals a suitcase from a tough looking youth who is in the loo and heads off on a 'lets see what happens' adventure.
Quite a lot happens, including the old man being partially responsible for two deaths, both of which verge on murder, if not manslaughter. The suitcase has $50 million in cash and along the way our hero teams up with a small time crook, a perpetual student/hotdog vendor and a woman who owns an elephant. Yep, you read it right. An elephant. Of course, the police are looking for Karlson, as are the big time crooks who own the $50 mill and the race is on to see who can find him first.
At the same time, we are given a running narrative of our centenarian's life, who turns out to have played a large if inadvertent part in most of the politics and world events of the last 70 or so years. Turns out he was the one who figured out how to get the atom bomb to work properly. Also, he had dinner with Mao. Oh, and President Truman, the guy who won the Spanish civil war and the first leader of North Korea. He was a spy and a political prisoner in the gulags, he learned Spanish, Chinese, Russian and Indonesian and he crossed the Himalayas by camel. He was also chemically castrated and blew up his own house. Twice. And, most notably, he did all of this and achieved detente in the Cold War without having any interest in politics. The only thing he really cared about was getting his next square meal and a drink. Of vodka, preferably.
At first I liked this book a lot. It's quirky and the language and construction is amusing and lightly done. The plot was intriguing too. Would they find him? Who would get the money? Why was he doing any of this at all?
And then I started to get annoyed with it. By the time I'd reached the two thirds mark I was only continuing so that I knew what happened, but it wasn't a satisfying read.
Basically, I didn't like Allan. Sure, it's amusing that a guy who has no interest in the greater good ends up working for it. It's ironic that a person who firmly declines to talk about any political stance whatsoever should end up affecting global politics in such world-changing ways. If it happens once, that's interesting. Twice, amusing. Six or seven or eight or nine times? Pfft. Whatever.
In a way, Allan Karlson is this decade's Forrest Gump, the innocent bystander who has a bigger part to play in world affairs than anyone could ever possibly imagine. The difference is that I liked Forrest. At least he had an ideal to strive for - his love for Jenny. At least he was trying to do the right thing.
Karlson, on the other hand, is a two dimensional character. He doesn't love anyone, he hardly mourns the multiple friends who get blown up in front of him and he is as calm as a sociopath in the multitude of near-death situations he finds himself in. As long as he gets his dinner and his vodka, he's good. But to me, that's shallow. I don't believe him as a character, and I don't want to believe in him as an 'everyman' for our generation. Sure, he has good points. He's adventurous and unconcerned and smart, but for me his negatives vastly outweigh the positives. I find Allan Karlson trivial, uncaring and materialistic.
It's hard to say what Jonas Jonasson was really writing in this book. An amusing story? Definitely. But on a deeper level he is criticising people who take politics and religion - or any type of world view - seriously. The one guy who doesn't care ends up changing the world.
It's a middle finger up to all the politicians of the world. "See? You think you're so smart. But Allan Karlson beat you at your own game."
But I think we need to care. Because if we don't, our ending is like Allan Karlson's ending, where he and his friends take money that never belonged to them, at the expense of two lives nobody at all seems to care about (they're bad guys, you see... they deserved it), and by concocting a vast web of lies to get out of any legal trouble they end up. All this so they can go and lie on a beach in Bali with their elephant for the rest of their lives. Even the policeman ends up looking the other way - because he's been promised a cut of the cash.
In the end, Allan Karlson, the 100 year old everyman of our recent history is amoral. Funny, yes. Quirky, definitely. Clever and entertaining, certainly. But amoral nonetheless.
And that brings me to 'The Fat Years', written in 2009 by Chan Koonchung. This is apparently an incredibly controversial book amongst Chinese speakers. In fact, it was banned in China (and probably still is) because of its critique of the Communist Party and the Chinese government. Again, it's a really well written novel (although I read the translation by Michael Duke) with the same amount of tension and mystery (and humour, I have to say) as The 100 Year Old Man.
This time, the story is set in the near future and follows a Taiwanese writer, Old Chen, who lives in Beijing, who, when the story opens, is so happy to be living in China's Age of Ascendency, which, according to popular belief, began the same day of the 2009 Global Financial Crisis. Old Chen nearly has tears in his eyes as he thinks about how great life is and how happy he is. So he can't understand it when he meets some old friends of his, Little Xi and Fang Caodi, both of whom don't seem to 'get' that they are lucky enough to live in China, the great leader of the world.
Why are they unhappy? And how come a whole month - and not a very happy month - has disappeared from the collective memory of China's population? In fact, how come no one ever talks about the bad things of Chinese recent history any more? Everyone is richer and living the 'fat' life, but everyone's just a little bit less 'free'.
Chen and his friends end up kidnapping a Chinese government secretary and asking him what's going on. His political discourse is extensive and astounding, but even more extraordinary is the fact that the Chen and Little Xi find out why everyone has been so extraordinarily happy. It's been the drinking water. Literally. The Chinese government, for the sake of stability and general well-being, decided to put very small quantities of the drug Ecstasy in the water supplies. It's a win-win situation. The populace feels happy and content and the government doesn't have to deal with any disturbances.
In contrast with the 100 Year Old Man, here we have three ordinary people who do have an interest in politics and in bettering their society, but who have absolutely no power or influence whatsoever. Not only do they not have power or influence, they also have very limited information and restrictions on what they can say and what they can't. And it's tragic.
The Chinese government in this novel is amoral as well - and the result is apparent contentment but an underlying lack of agency and freedom. Which would you rather have, the novel argues: a fake paradise or a good hell? China in The Fat Years is the fake paradise, but I'm not so sure that Allan Karlson and his friends and their elephant didn't end up in one as well.