Wrinkles: achingly beautiful, warm sensitive tale by Spanish creator Paco Roca

Wrinkles,

Paco Roca,

Knockabout

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Yes, I know James has already reviewed this (see here) a few weeks ago ahead of it’s release, but there are some books which you can’t resist posting another review of, they get too deeply into your thoughts and emotions. And since it is now on shelves and would be too easily overlooked I think it’s alright to indulge in a second opinion and commend a remarkable reading experience to your attention.

There are still many more interesting comic works coming out in Europe that we don’t get to see here, but thankfully things have improved in recent years, with more translations and more English language editions appearing via some quality publishers like Knockabout, who have translated (another good job by Nora Goldberg – the translators, like editors, often get too easily overlooked for their contribution) Paco Roca’s absolutely beautiful Wrinkles, a gorgeous, funny, sensitive book about family, friends, getting older, declining health.

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Our central character, Ernest, a retired bank manager, finds himself being dumped into a care home as his dementia slowly increases, all but abandoned by his son and his family (it isn’t just that they can’t give him the extra care he needs at home, that would stretch a saint’s patience, but his son makes it clear he has little in the way of plans to even visit the old man once he is in the home, as he is “busy”) – you may expect this to be a downer, an old man dumped into a waiting room for the terminally declining. And while Roca doesn’t shy away from the human tragedy of both body and mind slowly betraying us as we age, this is not an especially sad tale.

Those who can’t manage on their own anymore finish up there… Those who have lost their minds, dementia, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s… Better to die than end up there.”

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True there are sad moments, but they are the “beautifully sad” variety that make you smile as much as cry. And for the most part Roca injects the story with humour and some wonderful characters. These people are old, their marbles are slowly being lost one by one as their condition worsens – the “walking wounded” who can still take care of themselves live on the ground floor – the stairs to the upper floor, an ominous presence in their lives, lead to the ward where those too far gone to perform even the most basic functions for themselves are taken to wait in bewilderment for the end, all dignity gone.

Arriving at the home Ernest is introduced to the various characters who live there, including, most prominently, Émile, who will be his room-mate. And old Émile is quite a character, a scoundrel, but a charming one – you get the impression he was a bit of a Jack-the-lad in his younger years, and he has a nice sideline in scamming some of the more mentally impaired residents for a few Euros here and there, building up a little pile of money that he uses to great effect later on in a major scene for him, Émile and some of the others.

Ernest, as perhaps befits an old-fashioned bank manager, is a little distrustful of the chancey Émile, and yet the two start to form a friendship in this, their declining years, and with the other few residents who still have enough mental integrity left to look after themselves, a small band of very different people from different walks of life, brought together by their shared conditions and aware of how little time is left to them before the fog in their minds swallows all that made them individuals. But there are still sparks of life – old Eugene in the physio session managing to trick the attractive nurse into leaning right over him to help so he can then cop a feel of her breasts (much to the amusement of all the other eldsters).

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And others are in a dreamlike form of escapist fantasy, such as Mrs Rose, who stares out the window all day, but in her head she is looking out the window of a carriage of the Orient Express, on her way to Istanbul, Europe passing before her eyes, and she is young and elegant again; she can still interact with the other patients, but only seeing them as fellow passengers. Rose is lost from the real world, but, like Don Quixote or Gaiman’s Emperor Joshua Norton before her, she is happy in her fantasy, happier than her real-life situation could ever make her; her mind has concocted an escape route that keeps her content and really, you don’t want them to do what they did to the Don and make her face the harsh reality; let her dream happily whatever days she has left.

In some ways this is like a 1980s high school romp film – the ‘inmates’ usually have to follow rules and schedules, but sometimes they like to play up, or even indulge in some Ferris Bueller style “day off” time and escape the confines of the care home (it doesn’t go quite as well as Bueller’s day). And indeed the school allegory is one Rosa touches on directly, Ernest’s damaged memory on his first day in the home flashing all the way back to childhood and his first day at school, both daunting, emotional moments where we feel adrift and alone, unsure of ourselves or where we are.

Then there is Émile, who for all his faults, does seem to come to care genuinely for Ernest, helping him as his condition deteriorates. They are pals, and both know their time is limited, Ernest in particular showing increasing signs of mental deterioration. And of course, it continues to deteriorate – the only fantasy here is in the damaged brains of the patients, the rest is the real world, and in the real world, unfortunately, we know all too damned well that these conditions worsen until one days there is nothing left of the person who was once so vital.

In one heartbreaking but incredibly touching scene, after Ernest is given his Alzheimer’s diagnosis by the doctor, he asks Émile to show him that upper floor, where the hopeless go. It’s worse than he thought, and he knows he is potentially looking at his own very near future, mind gone, but body still ticking over, and he begs Émile, his new friend, please help me, don’t let me end up there. And Émile, bless his normally scoundrel-like heart, tries to help his friend, the two sharing reading and discussion because they heard this helps keep the brain going against the deterioration. And both knowing it probably won’t work, especially when Ernest tells him he’s read some Marquez (the remarkable Love in a Time of Cholera), but then can’t remember what it was about…

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There’s no happy ending here, no sudden miracle cures; Roca depicts this quietly, subtly, a sudden empty chair at lunch signifying another gone to the upper floor, while he uses the comics medium to give us glimpses into the deteriorating minds of the patients in a way no other narrative structure could, skipping between flashbacks and imagined fantasy scenes to the real setting, or that sad yet lovely image on the cover of Ernest, head out the train window, photographs – his memories – spilling out into the slipstream, and yet he is with Mrs Rose on the Orient Express, and seemingly happy. There’s a sad sense of inevitability here, the darkening future bearing down on all of them and there’s nothing they can do about it; old age, illness, death, sureties for all human, rich and poor, since the dawn of mankind. And yet still Wrinkles resolutely refuses to be gloomy. And when the reading scheme fails to improve Ernest’s memory, his wily friend then resorts to his trickster ways to help Ernest evade the upper floor for as long as he can.

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It’s an achingly beautiful bit of work by Roca, with much gentle humour laced through it all. This could have remained as sensitive as it is but been much more serious and darker in tone, but I am so glad he opted for the lighter touch. Not just because it leavens the darker aspects (we know all of these people only have a short time left, and, worse, that most of them will lose their minds before the end, leaving just a body that no longer knows itself or its family or friends, a wretched situation too many families have to slowly endure). But because it reminds us that everyday life, even at that advanced age, even in a place like a care home, still throws up funny moments, little laughs, interactions with friends – in short all the little things that make up our days and make life bearable. Despite what is facing them, despite being left where they are, these people are still alive and still human, Rosa is saying, and he gives them all, even the supporting cast, real character and make us care for them, root for them.

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Wonderfully, humanly warm, emotive, funny, sensitive, and cleverly exploiting the abilities of the comics medium to tell a story in a way only a comic could. A scant few weeks into the New Year and already I know this will feature on my Best of the Year list come December.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

It’s been a while

It’s been months since I last posted here; sad to say the blog was just one part of my normal life I slowly withdrew from over the weeks and months – even my own bookgroup I set up years ago and other regular activities just slowly stopped, I had neither the energy or desire to take part in them or anything else. It was a bad several months ending an awful year, frankly, and left me emotionally exhausted. Lost a couple of friends, lost the second of my lovely furry companions, my darling old kitty Cassie (leaving the flat feeling terribly empty) and there was the constant worry as we waited for a date for dad’s much needed heart surgery. And when that finally came in mid November it didn’t go as smoothly as planned, not by a long shot. A five hour or so operation, delicate, complex but still relatively routine for the specialist cardiac surgeons, two or three days in the ICU (Intensive Care Unit), couple of weeks in the general ward then home to recuperate over a few months as you build up your strength again.

That is how it normally goes, but there’s always the one in so many thousand where it doesn’t work so well. And after all our stress and strain over the last year and worrying and hospital visits and waiting for surgery and fretting about it didn’t we get the short straw, just because obviously it hadn’t been a hard enough time already. More work was needed and my dad was out for a full week before I got to see him so much as barely open an eye, a week of travelling hours back and forth to the other side of the country to the specialist hospital and worrying and waiting before I even got to see him slightly awake. Weeks more before I heard my dad speak to me for the first time in weeks. What would have been mum’s birthday came and went, never an easy emotional time for either of us at any time, under these circumstances that date took a sledgehammer to the morale and had a bad effect on dad too.

We soldiered on, Christmas, New Year and my birthday on Hogmanay came and went and were depressing, sad, empty non events, dad still very ill and in intensive care after weeks of care, me pretty much on my own. A friend was kind enough to give me a lift through on Christmas Day so I could visit him, relatives visiting him dropped me off at the family home where I spent a miserable five or six hours on my own in an empty house waiting on my return lift back with my friend. I’ve never been in our family home alone at Christmas, it was terribly upsetting and with everything else going on it pitched me further into a very dark place. Thank goodness for calls from others like my wider family to cheer me up as I sat at home alone. Oh, wait, no there wasn’t a single bloody call. Not a one. Just because Christmas Day hadn’t been miserable and lonely enough already. And the dark thoughts swarmed around – get used to it, this is probably how Christmas will be when you are older. That time of year can be hard for a lot of folk and this time it really broke me; a similarly miserable birthday and New Year added to it. Really felt like giving up, but had to keep going.

Eventually by mid January my dad was well enough (barely) to go home and fortunately as I work mostly online I could take my laptop and work from back home – not ideal but do-able on a short term, so I moved back home to Smallsville for the best part of a month, worked as best I could trying to do a full work day from home while helping dad as best I could, doing the housework, cooking, shopping, talking to health folks, arguing with one particular batch of bloody idiots who demanded he come in for regular tests when he could barely make it down the stairs. Was pretty bloody tired out by all of this, but worth it as dad improved hugely, from being very tired and unable to do much to being able to do more, do stuff for himself, get around, got his appetite back and as his strength returned his morale got so much better, it was good to see after the long, long bloody road we had to stagger down. Could have used a good long break after all those months, especially as I had no real holiday for the last year – I had one week off for the Film Fest in June as usual but on the first day dad was taken into hospital with his heart attack, so that wasn’t much of a break as I was back and forth to hospital (still got to see a few of the films but my heart wasn’t in it) and I saved most of my remaining holiday days for when the surgery happened knowing I’d need them, but with the much longer stay I used up far more than I thought I would.

Back home in Edinburgh and slowly trying to get myself back into my regular life – months have gone past since I last went to my own book group so I’m planning to get back starting with this month’s upcoming meeting, and go and enjoy the regular Edinburgh Literary Salon, already been back to my first event at the Tales of One City readings, felt nice to get back to going to functions and events and talks again, even got friend who has similarly been running back and forth from Edinburgh to Glasgow to help with ill relatives out for her birthday (took her to the new patisserie on the Bridges for a treat, delicious, then a nice wander round the galleries too). Hopefully we continue on the upward curve this year, I think we bloody deserve it. May even start thinking about visiting the cat rescue folk at some point and see about taking in some new kitties. Let’s see …

Cassie home safe

After that frightening health scare with my darling old kitty Cassandra (normally known just as Cassie), I’m delighted to say she seems much improved. The vet thought it was one of two things, as I said in my previous post – one is a growth inside the nasal cavity which can’t even be checked properly much less dealt with without a specialist procedure available only at the vetinary hospital in town, very expensive and advised against by the vet on grounds of her age meaning even the anaesthetic could be too much for her. The other was an inflammation – vet was leaning towards it being a growth and gently letting me know if it was I might be better thinking of what was best for her, a gentle way of saying I might have to consider letting her be put to sleep. As this was almost a year to the day since we lost Cassie’s wonderful sister, my huge cuddlepuss Pandora, I was horrified at the thought I was about to lose her too. Since we couldn’t tell which condition it was we decided to try the meds first, see if she did any better in a few days and if so good, if not then back to considering the awful decision…

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Wednesday night and Thursday morning not much difference, by Thursday night breathing sounded much better, less of the disturbing noises, by Friday even better, back into vet yesterday morning and they were pleased with her progress too, so we’ve been lucky and home we came. Spent evening simply being happy having my gorgeous wee old girl snuggled up next to me, purring away, having her furry tummy tickled, eating well (apparently the meds have a side effect of boosting appetite for a few days), then she jumped up onto the bed at night and curled up on top of me and purred me to sleep and I simply felt relieved and happy to have her there. She is getting on and I’m not fooling myself that some day I won’t have her there just as I no longer have Pandora, and that will be awful – I bought this place when the girls were very young and so I’ve had them for as long (longer) than I have lived in my own place, they are part of what makes a flat into a home and it already feels unbalanced without Pandora, without Cass it would feel so empty and lifeless. But not thinking about that now, right now I have my girl feeling better and demanding I give Her Royal Furryness lots of attention, tummy tickles, chin scratches and adoration (and kitty milk and some sliced ham too, please). And right now that’s enough to make me feel happy.