Friday, December 08, 2023

Wrinkles by Paco Roca

Emilio used to be a bank manager. He knows that. In his early seventies, in the early stages of Alzheimer's, sometimes that's the biggest thing he knows, the one he can cling on to - even if the "used to be" slips out of memory all the time.

As Wrinkles opens, his condition has gotten to a crisis: his family (two grown children and their spouses) can't take care of him anymore. And so Emilio moves into a home, an institution - the book never gives the name of the place, and Emilio probably wouldn't remember it anyway.

Emilio is central to Wrinkles, but he doesn't really drive the plot - that's more the function of his new roommate, Miguel, one of the highest-functioning of the inmates of this house, who uses that freedom to con and steal and play tricks and amuse himself. He comes across as a fun, amusing guy, but you can tell he'd be deeply annoying in real life. Even if you couldn't remember enough day-to-day to be clear why he's so annoying.

Wrinkles is largely about what Emilio is losing - bits of memory, words, independence, abilities to do things - and, for a while, it feels like it might be the story of how he "escapes" that process. There is an escape, about mid-way through the book: the usual "old people have one last fling" scene, required in any story like this. That's not what I mean. That's not the way a story about someone like Emilio can ever end.

But Wrinkles is more amiable than I thought it might turn out to be. It's a book about old people by a young person - Paco Roca published it in 2007, in his late thirties, though this edition, translated by Erica Mena, came out in 2016 - with an a afterword about how he talked to a bunch of folks who'd had experience with Alzheimer patients and they gave him some amusing stories.

That's mostly the level we settle into here: amusing stories. Aside from a few moments, Roca doesn't focus on the existential horror of being trapped in a decaying, collapsing mind, unable to trust your speech or actions or memories. But those moments are there, and anyone inclined to be worried about dementia - someone my age, for example, someone who lives in his head and fears losing that home, someone with an older mother having her own memory issues - might find it a bit thin and facile.

Emilio only gets worse as the book goes on: he will never get better. Like all of us, he will eventually die, and, on this path, he very likely won't be Emilio when he dies. I wished that was more important. I wished that was the story Roca was telling. But it isn't: this is a lighter, happier story, one more skewed to the children dropping their parents off at the home than the people living and dying there.

Roca has been more serious than this: I liked his The House, from almost exactly the same time in his career. But Wrinkles is probably a better introduction: it's positive and open and friendly and happy, with a cast of amusing oddballs and an uplifting message.

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