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Antonio Altarriba & Kim


Page 45 Review by Jonathan

Sometimes, as with people, things are not always as they initially appear. A first glance inside this hardcover revealed what appeared to be a relatively primitive art style, wordily lettered in a somewhat jarring font. I persisted with it though, for three reasons.

Firstly, Random House / Jonathan Cape have published some rather good graphic novels over the years so I thought they at least deserved some benefit of the doubt! Secondly, I was aware this work has won six major European comic prizes including the Spanish 2010 Best Comic Prize. Finally, I do have an interest in that particular era, WW2 and the run up to it.

The Spanish Civil War, though, was not something I knew a great deal about, other than from accounts by people like George Orwell etc. who had volunteered to go there and fight against the rise of fascism in the form of General Franco. So I thought it would be an interesting historical primer if nothing else.

This work is narrated by Altaribba, recounting the entirety of his father Antonio's life, beginning with his decision, aged 90, to leap from the top floor of his nursing home, freshly shaved and dressed to go out in style, which presumably inspired the title. Once we've seen that denouement revealed, we then go back to the very beginning, to his crushingly austere and rather brutal childhood in the rural, agricultural Spanish heartlands.

As biographies of a life go, it's extremely well told, the child's clear desire to escape what was tantamount to penal servitude and spread his wings, thus, inadvertently at first, getting caught up in an incredibly turbulent period of Spanish history. Antonio's teenage and early adult life was certainly also one of struggle and strife, those he never really truly escaped.

After the rather chaotic years of partisan fighting, sometimes of an internecine, factional nature amongst other elements of the Republican resistance, as well as against their main enemy the fascists, things took a considerable turn for the worse when the Republican forces were finally defeated and driven from Spain. Rather than being welcomed by France, the losers were forced first into internment camps, then indentured labour. The squalid conditions of the camps killed a number of gallant fighters and their families who had already given so much in their doomed support of the cause.

Eventually, seizing his chance to escape, Antonio tried at first to settle in France before eventually admitting defeat and heading back to Spain, where he found a number of his former comrades, now trying to get by in Franco's Spain by keeping their heads down and their mouths shut about their pasts. For a brief while you could actually say he thrived, being reasonably successful in business, but his latter days were spent once more in comparative poverty, having been financially betrayed by one of his business partners.

Sadly, he then found life in the old people's home which he entered relatively early - simply by dint of being unable to afford anything else - a rather strictured, unpleasant and ultimately demoralising experience. In many ways, no different from most of his life. So, when you reach the point where the ninety-year-old Antonio is preparing to make his final escape, you can fully understand his decision to depart this world entirely on his own terms.

This is a very moving book in many ways, with much to say about how life less than a century ago in what we now perceive as stable, civilised Western European was anything but, with widespread poverty, violence, political instability and corruption, large scale movement of refugees, discrimination. We do have it easy these days in comparison, there's no doubt about that.

I think it's testament to Altaribba Jr.'s narrative skills, plus the fascinating details of Antonio's life, that very quickly I didn't notice the art too much. It's not bad, it's just nothing special. Frankly, in some ways, the art isn't actually that important in a work like this, it's the story which is always going to be the star. I should note, aside from the fact I can't draw at all, apparently Kim is a highly regarded cartoonist responsible for a hugely popular humour strip in Spanish newspapers called MARTINEZ THE FASCIST, though having googled that it seems far more Robert Crumb / Gilbert Shelton in style than this work. Meanwhile, I did realise that the lettering would obviously have originally been in Spanish, possibly in a different font, so I guess I shouldn't be too critical on that point. Neither remotely spoilt my enjoyment of what was ultimately a fascinating and highly illuminating biography.