We meet Allan Karlson on the morning of his 100th birthday, sitting alone in his room at the nursing home within which he resides in the Swedish town of Malmkoping. A party is being planned to celebrate his reaching a triple digit age, with local dignitaries and press coming along. Allan, however, doesn’t want to attend.
So, being a man of fairly fine fettle considering his advancing years, he decides to make a break for it, climbing, as the title of the story informs us, out of the window and disappearing.
And so begins a remarkable, funny and frequently absurd adventure.
Author Jonas Jonasson moves the story on with a feverish pace and with the lightness of touch that perfectly matches the ‘Que Sera’ mentality of the protagonist. Weaving between Allan’s shuffling, farce-laden road trip as he encounters all manner of eccentric and shady characters we are also taken on a journey back through Karlson’s long, and astonishingly eventful life.
With more than an hint of similarity to Forrest Gump we find that Karlson, a man of simple means and desires, has played a significant role in shaping many of the major events of the twentieth century. A man who remained vociferously neutral on all matters of politics and religion we find Karlson inadvertently mixing with the great and the decidedly not so great at some of their more pivotal moments. From Franco to Chairman Mao, Stalin to Nixon, Karlson manages to meander his way through history with a weary sigh and a constant craving for good vodka.
While the parallel to Gump is clear, where the story differs is in its telling; Jonasson always managing to steer well clear of anything resembling sentimentality, drawing the reader at all times towards the absurd and comic with some glorious set-pieces, a motley crew of characters that wouldn’t be out of place among the pages of a Douglas Adams novel.
If you thought Swedish fiction was all about grisly murder, long dark neurotic nights and troubled cops, then this delightful romp through modern history will redress the balance.
There is something in the way in which Paul Auster writes that stays with me for days afterwards. It lingers in thought, a nagging urge to better understand the prose; that no matter how deeply you feel about the story, there’s another layer unfound, asking to be revealed.
And so it has been with Moon Palace, an older Auster novel (from 1989) which only now have I finally managed to consume.
Set as the sixties were giving way to the seventies, in the shadow of men landing on the moon and the sense of a rapidly changing world, the novel is a first person narrative told through the words and reflections of the young Marco Stanley Fogg, a delightful composite of a name. On the one hand old-school, faintly comic Dickensian while at the same time offering whispers of exploration and adventures to come.
And it is indeed, a novel of melancholic exploration, both physical and psychological. A story which takes us from the urban sprawl of a modern Manhattan to the visions of older America, the vastness of the West and the myths that lie at the heart of the country, the continent and the people, indigenous or otherwise, who have called it their home. An existential journey through the nation’s expansive evolution, it’s no coincidence that Fogg’s story ultimately heads west.
Knitted together by a series of fairly unlikely coincidences the story uses a fiendishly clever picaresque style, allowing us to learn tales of the main protagonists over the course of three generations. And, in so doing we find ourselves in the midst of a story that seems to repeat on itself, the notion that history is repetitive. Fogg’s early descent into homelessness and despair, living off trash can scraps and taking to shelter in a cave in the heart of Central Park is later mirrored by the tale of his benefactor Effing, who relays to Fogg his own cave-dwelling travails as a young artist lost in the Utah desert, many years before.
Auster clearly has a lot to say across a gamut of themes within the novel; each episode a contemplation on history and family, but also on the nature of art and the act and indeed importance of story-telling within our culture. There is Fogg’s grief-induced quest to read every book inherited from his uncle as he slowly extracts himself from society; the meta-fiction re-telling of Sol Barber’s poorly written fantasy western and the book length, pre-death obituary of Effing. With each story comes a new revelation, ever more bizarre but no less compelling, bringing the protagonists’ lives closer together.
And then there is Kitty Wu. The contrast to the old world order of Effing’s art and Barber’s academia. The love of Fogg’s life (within these pages, at least) Wu is at once a representation of heroism and tragedy. Of Chinese origin, she shares a backstory similar to Fogg’s. Lost and trying to find her way in a new landscape she frequently displays the strength that Fogg seems to lack; becoming his salvation and, ultimately a victim of his weakness and a representation of historic mistakes made by men in the name of forging new frontiers.
Ultimately, Moon Palace is a reflection of human existence and the way in which we stubbornly refuse to learn from our mistakes. As Douglas Adams once said: “We live and learn. At least, we live.” So this is the fundamental truth at which Auster appears to be suggesting, symbolised throughout by reference to the moon. On one level we have a book about exploration in the shadow of the moon landings while at the same time the symbol of a history of blunders, the cyclical nature of the moon mirroring that of our protagonist’s lives.
And no, it’s not 42.
Did you ever feel that the world needed a word for that bead of sweat which runs down your bottom cleavage?
Neither did I.
Luckily for the rest of us, two men did feel that particular need. Indeed, they felt the need to appoint words to a whole raft of life’s quirks which, beforehand, were left to fend for themselves.
And so was born The Meaning of Liff and The Deeper Meaning of Liff – dictionaries, as they describe themselves, of things for which there aren’t any words for yet.
The creators of Liff are, or rather were, the late, great Douglas Adams and the thankfully still quite present but no less great John Lloyd. Adams, quite the favourite round my way, is the comedic genius behind The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the Dirk Gently Detective Series while Lloyd is responsible for, among other things, Not the 9 O’clock News, Blackadder, Spitting Image & QI and is in no way whatsoever, a former tennis player and husband of Chris Evert.
So what’s the concept again?
Well, according to one of the many prefaces attached to the varying editions of the dictionary, The Meaning of Liff can be described as thus:
In life there are many hundreds of common experiences, feelings, situations and even objects which we all know and recognise, but for which no word exists. On the other hand the world is littered with thousands of spare words which spend their time doing nothing but loafing around on signposts pointing at places.The Deeper Meaning of Liff, John Lloyd & Douglas Adams
In short, Lloyd and Adams have taken place names and afforded them new meanings.
Yes it’s an odd concept, I’ll give you that.
But trust me, once you delve into the book you’ll get it, you’ll read on, you’ll titter and you may even begin to adopt one or two into your actual everyday vocabulary.
It is, as is the case for most things for which these gents are responsible, very funny indeed.
A sample of ‘new’ words
Disclaimer: these books came out over 20 years ago so the use of ‘new’ is somewhat subjective. Also, the words themselves are not actually new at all, as they have been used as place names around the world for many a decade, but they are ‘new’ in the sense that they have been attributed ‘new’ meanings – albeit quite some time ago now. I hope that clears things up.
Descriptive of the pleasing coolness on the reverse side of the pillow.
The triumphant slamming shut of a book after reading the final page.
To fart underwater.
The desire of married couples to see their single friends pair off.
A long and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to get someone’s bra off.
Blank, sly and faintly embarrassed. Pertaining to the expression seen on the face of someone who has clearly forgotten your name.
The horrible smell caused by washing ashtrays
The daze which follows turning the light on in the middle of the night.
The amount of coffee left at the bottom of a jar which doesn’t amount to a spoonful
Satisfied grunting noise made when sitting back after a good meal.
That part of a song lyric which you suddenly realise you’ve been mishearing for years.
(Of literary critics) To include all the best jokes from the book in the review to make it look as if the critic thought of them. (cough, splutter, what?)
To hold a ruler on one end of a desk and make the other end go bbddbbddbbrrbrrrddrr.
[descriptions taken from ‘The Deeper Meaning of Liff’ by Douglas Adams & John Lloyd, 1990]