On the hundred-year-old child and the difference between children’s and adult fiction

“The matter with human beans,” the BFG went on, “is that they is absolutely refusing to believe in anything unless they is actually seeing it right in front of their own schnozzles.”
― Roald Dahl, The BFG

 

Every now and then, it does us good to once again see the world with a child’s simplicity. As adults, we have made it a very complex place, full of politics, agendas and serious issues. There is something to be said for a child’s ability, in their unawareness of such issues, to take things at face value. With their judgement untainted by background knowledge and the restrictive limits of perceived probability, they are able to take pleasure in the magic of first impressions and form their own opinions without the burden of someone else’s bias.

This is a skill we tend to lose in the course of our journey into adulthood. We gradually become more aware of the complexity and darker side to the way the world works, and begin to feel more keenly the pressure to adapt to this in order to survive and succeed. We have to find the right relationship, the right job, earn the right amount of money in order to be able to buy the right things and live the life that is expected of us. The life we are told to want.

As such, many of our fantasies in fiction revolve around these expectations. The hero always gets the girl, the heroine finally excels in her dream job and both have the power to shape their lives as they wish and truly affect the world around them.

Yet even these dreams are restricted by the values of the adult world. A child dreams differently: they do not doubt in the world’s capacity for magic or their own ability to change it. They are not concerned with fitting in or meeting expectations. They simply want fun and adventure.

I was reminded of this difference recently when I discovered a rare gem: an adult book written with a child’s imagination. The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson is a magical tale of adventure where the main character travels the world making unlikely friends, getting into dangerous scrapes and generally being a nuisance to sensible, self-important adults who don’t know how to have fun. In many ways, Allan Karlsson is similar to the young protagonists of the books I read in my childhood. But there is one difference – he is one hundred years old.

The titular centenarian handles life very much like a child would, albeit one with an adult’s ability to fend for himself. He has no interest in politics, religion or other “boring” adult topics, and when a situation becomes too dull for him he simply ups and leaves, be it his own birthday party or a Soviet gulag. Yes, he drinks, but not as many adults do, to escape the pressure or banality of their lives. He consumes schnapps simply for the fun of it, to celebrate the moment he is currently living in. Nor is he ever an aggressive drunk – indeed, we rarely see any effect at all from the alcohol, save for a little loosening of the tongue and poor decision-making.

In many ways, Jonasson’s approach to writing and view of the world reminded me of my own childhood favourite, Roald Dahl. It has been many years since I read one of Dahl’s books, but I still remember the whimsical sense of “why not?” that motivated his characters’ actions, and his flagrant disregard for stuffy, grown-up ideals of how the world works. There is a brilliant part in The Hundred-Year-Old in the early 1930s where, travelling to Spain with a friend who wishes to fight in the Civil War, an excited Allan meets his first “negro”. Having experienced much fear and hatred of these strange beings from the authorities in his homeland, Allan quickly loses interest when he finds that, really, the only difference between the two of them is the colour of their skin. This simple dismantling of a complex political agenda is reminiscent of the scene in The BFG where the giant questions Sophie on her perception of good and bad:

 

‘I is not understanding human beans at all,’ the BFG said.’ You is a human bean and you is saying it is grizzling and horrigust for giants to be eating human beans. Right or left?’

‘Right,’ Sophie said.

‘But human beans is squishing each other all the time,’ the BFG said. ‘They is shootling guns and going up in aerioplanes to drop their bombs on each other’s heads every week. Human beans is always killing other human beans.’

 

This matter-of-fact approach is key to Jonasson’s storytelling. The tale is clearly idealised, with Karlsson and his friends enjoying far more good luck than your average, realistic adult would expect. Yet everything that occurs is still very much within the realms of possibility, even if it is highly improbable. There is no magic, and there are no monsters or mythical creatures.

As such, The Hundred-Year-Old Man differs in content from much children’s literature. It very clearly takes place in an adult world, and handles historical and political topics very astutely. Yet these details are tempered by the lens through which we see this world – by the child-like way Allan Karlsson simply potters from one hilarious encounter to another, picking up friends along the way. Everyone gets along more or less famously, and within the group there are never any real issues or tensions of the type that often drive the plot of other adult novels.

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared is escapist, as many books are. Yet this is a child’s escapism. Despite all the encounters with prominent historical figures, Allan Karlsson never sets out to foil dastardly terrorist plots or government conspiracies. He does not bed bevies of beautiful women like the action hero of an adult film. When he wins the day, he does not revel in his own glory, and nor does the narrator. His pleasure – and thus our own – is in the joy of the adventure itself, and once each instalment is over we simply wait for him to stumble into his next mishap.

Although the book’s protagonist is older than most of us could ever hope to become, his naivety and easy-going approach to life take us out of our dreary, complicated, worlds in a way that so few “adult” stories do. This is a joyous read for the inner child, and I recommend it heartily.

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