Book review: Wrinkles - graphic novel set in an old people's home is powerful
by Paco Roca
About a decade ago, a young Spanish illustrator called Paco Roca drew an elderly couple for an advertisement. "They're not nice to look at," the marketing people told him. As Roca reluctantly removed them, he decided to wreak what might be called graphic revenge: his first comic-strip novel would be entirely populated by old people.
Set in a care home for people with Alzheimer's disease, Roca's Wrinkles has sold more than 50,000 copies since it was first published in France and Spain in 2007; in 2011 it was adapted for an animated movie by Spanish director Ignacio Ferreras. Now this unflinching tragicomedy on old age can at last be read in English.
Roca has an unerring eye for the surfaces and tics of middle-class life. His autobiographical strip in El País has a loyal readership. Since the success of Wrinkles, Roca's other graphic novels have included an adaptation of Kafka and works of fantasy and history. All his creations depict, he says, "people struggling to fit in".
Wrinkles opens as Ernest, an ascetic former bank manager, is deposited in a care home following a number of "senior moments". He meets his stocky roommate, Émile, a character who hovers tantalisingly between twinkly-eyed rogue and something more mafioso.
Playing Virgil to Ernest's bewildered Dante, Émile introduces us to the denizens of the home: the seated statues in the day room, the vacant-eyed lunch companions. Roca spent months touring such homes, distilling what he saw and heard into his spare, uncluttered panels. The rows of vinyl wing-backed chairs, the porthole windows in the double doors - all form a cold poetics of place from which Roca coaxes sparks of warmth and life.
In one scene, deafness and dementia turn a bingo session into noisy farce. In the corridor, Émile gulls a muddled old woman into paying him to give her directions to the telephone. "By the time she gets to reception," he cackles, "she'll have forgotten why she's there."
Even Émile, however, baulks at showing Ernest the home's most hellish circle: the dreaded first floor, to which the hopeless cases are transferred. "I'll do anything not to end up there," Ernest begs his guide. Cue the tender male camaraderie at which Roca excels, the home's catatonic boredom briefly enlivened by the two men's escape bid.
Accompanying the beautiful details are vertiginous shifts in perspective. In some panels we see a character as she sees herself: an elegant young woman in a plush wagon of the Orient Express. In the next panel, we see her as she is: a wizened old woman in a wheelchair.
There are problems with the translation. Émile's picaresque humour has been lost in horribly unnatural dialogue, rendered not from the Spanish original, but from French - hence the bizarre retention of French names. But this doesn't diminish the impact of Wrinkles' powerful conclusion.