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Debating the value of a sequel

‘There was never meant to be a sequel to the story of the hundred-year-old man who climbed out of a window and disappeared. Many people wanted one … I didn’t. I’d already said everything I wanted to say’. So, says Jonas Jonasson in the foreword to his sequel The Accidental Further Adventures of the Hundred-Year-Old Man. The first book about the hundred-year-old Allan Karlsson was a bestseller and so it is no surprise that there was demand for a sequel. Yet, the first book spanned a hundred years of Karlsson’s life, taking us on a journey through several important events of the twentieth century (at which Karlsson always seemed to unwittingly get involved) eventually coming full circle to his one-hundredth birthday. Where else could the story possibly go?

This is the question I found myself asking when I saw that a sequel was released last year. The cynic in me felt that writing a sequel to this bestseller could only have been done for commercial reasons, rather because there was much else to say. However, Jonasson’s foreword addresses this suspicion head-on, explaining to readers how he initially felt the same way. Until he didn’t.

Applying the humour and indirectly satirical tone of the first book onto a modern context proves to be a winning formula

According to Jonasson, his decision to write a sequel was less commercial than it was political. The strange state of the world in the last few years with events such as Donald Trump’s election and the rise of the far-right in Europe had given him the urge to return to his elderly hero (or rather bystander, since that’s all he is most of the time). So, was this sequel justified or not? Would Jonasson have been better off not returning to this character?

In the end, I think The Accidental Further Adventures of the Hundred-Year-Old Man was a worthwhile sequel. Set over a considerably shorter timespan than the previous book, the story follows Allan Karlsson in the year following his one-hundred-and-first birthday as he becomes accidentally involved in current affairs, from North Korea to the White House to the plains of Kenya. Applying the humour and indirectly satirical tone of the first book onto a modern context proves to be a winning formula, as Jonasson shows that he did indeed have more worth saying.

Jonasson manages to get the writing of his sequel right

In fact, what makes this sequel so effective is the fact that it did not attempt to simply repeat the formula of the first book. Whilst keeping the same sardonic tone that characterised the first book, Jonasson allows the character of Karlsson to develop as a result of his ‘black tablet’, which suddenly makes the unconcerned pensioner concerned about just about everything in the world. To be sure, he is still the laid-back character that he was before, stumbling into absurdly high-stakes situations and taking it in his stride, but his iPad makes him somewhat more engaged with the world around him.

And so, Jonasson manages to get the writing of his sequel right. He does not pointlessly rehash his earlier work just to sell more books, but instead he adds to it in a funny, poignant and utterly ludicrous new story.

Sam Savelli

However, there is a darker side to sequels when they are used to scandalise and capitalise on the vulnerable. Go Set a Watchman isn’t so much a sequel as it is a prequel, taking the form of Harper Lee’s preliminary draft of To Kill a Mockingbird that just so happens to be set twenty years after its finalisation into the book that changed the landscape of 20th century America.

Published under somewhat scandalous and morally dubious conditions in which there was much contentious energy surrounding the author’s agency and consent, I cannot help but feel inclined to support the media’s theory that the frail and nearly deaf-blind Harper Lee was coerced into publishing this ostensibly ‘lost manuscript’, unaware of the conditions to which she was signing. Especially since this surfaced so suspiciously close to her death. And thus, through the controversy surrounding the time and conditions of this sequel’s publication we see the capitalisation of a great mind lost to the powers of age and decay.

Whereas the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird flagged up the bigotry and injustice that was steeped within the deep South, all that Go Set a Watchman’s publication did was scandalise the author and exhume her from the shadows of reclusion in which she wished to stay.  

With this book she was forced back into the headlines that she spent her entire life hiding from

The power of this prequel-sequel hybrid is that it provides a speculative look into what could have been, and if this had been published in place of To Kill a Mockingbird the entire landscape of the deep American South could have been radically different.

But Lee never asked for fame; yet, with this book she was forced back into the headlines that she spent her entire life hiding from.

Whilst sequels can be beautiful and powerful continuations of a world that collapsed with the end of the original narrative, Go Set a Watchman represents the sequel that should never have been published. Despite serving fans with a final sweep of the mythical Maycombian landscape, all this novel did was unsettle poor Lee in the final months of her life in which her unwanted fame and literary prowess became the very things that were used against her.   

Raf Kapur

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