Friday, February 8, 2013

On Making An Exit: The Song of Roland

Michel Rabagliati's The Song of Roland (titled Paul in Quebec in its original French release) is the first of his books to be translated into English by a publisher other than Drawn & Quarterly. Indeed, it was released by the formidable Conundrum Press, a publisher that's now publishing some cartoonists formerly published by D&Q as well as a host of other Canadian cartoonists. I've said it before elsewhere, but Canada has an incredibly deep, diverse and ever-expanding range of cartooning talent, and it deserves to have a number of different publishers active to curate, nurture and publicize its talent. Rabagliati's slice-of-life Paul series of books offer a gentle, humane, funny and ultimately very real account of how lives are lived. His last book, Paul Goes Fishing, was about life and death, creativity and parenting. Rabagliati's books are always about the intersection between memory and how we process our current emotions, and The Song of Roland is no exception.

What's different about this volume is that Paul is really just a supporting character. The book is really about the family of Paul's partner Lucie and her father in particular. Rabagliati sets the scene in the early part of the book, as her parents always made their country cabin a place of vacation for their children and grandchildren, relishing a busy and loud house. The tracks of memories are laid down in this section of the book as Lucie and her sisters recall funny and sometimes vaguely traumatic memories of coming out there. In a book that's about the death of a beloved family member, Rabagliati is careful to vividly create a set of characters before assigning them roles in a tragedy and also inserts a number of moments of both tranquility and levity into the proceedings. We get to inhabit the lives of the people in this book, to get a sense of their eccentricities and how they interact with each other, before tragedy strikes.

Rabagliati does clue the reader in right away that Lucie's father Roland has cancer, though at the time we meet him he's still robust and gruff. As the book proceeds, Paul and the reader get to know him better: he was raised in an orphanage and had a hardscrabble life, until he worked his way up through various companies to become a vice-president. While Roland never quite escaped that feeling of being a defensive, gruff orphan, he made sure to become the sort of father and grandfather that he never had. He is paid back, at the end of his life, in the love he felt from his family. The final third of the book, when Roland is in a hospice facility, neatly encompasses the various stages of accepting death. There's a beautiful stillness to this section that contrasts nicely to the louder, more rambunctious storytelling earlier in the book. Roland is initially rude to the staff when he enters the facility but soon understands both his fate and the role of the people taking care of him. His children and surprising friends show up to see him, many stunned by the sight of a once-vital man wasting away. Through the whole experience, Paul and Roland grow closer and closer after years of slight distance between the two men. The one mawkish note Rabagliati does inject into the proceedings was Roland telling Paul to call him by his first name after years of insisting he call him by his surname. The minute Rabagliati introduced the latter bit of information, it was obvious how this would play out.

On the other hand, what I didn't see coming was a scene on a park bench involving Roland's three daughters getting high as a kind of pressure valve and laughing uproariously at all sorts of nonsense. During a long and austere set of sequences, some drug & scat humor was just what the doctor ordered, as the scene breaks an almost unbearable and inevitable tension in the narrative. It's also a palate cleanser for the real end of the story when Roland dies. The epilogue is a mix of the same sort of heartfelt emotion and quotidian comedic fare that makes up the rest of the book, as the priest at Roland's funeral mispronounces his name, one of his daughters gives a stirring speech, and his granddaughter sees his spirit moving on. That scene could have been cloying, but it felt earned after the way that Rabagliati so gracefully depicts the passing of a forceful personality--especially since there's a funny callback to be found. All told, The Song of Roland isn't quite as complex or powerful as Paul Goes Fishing, but it's a strong effort that addresses downbeat themes with grace, wit and genuine warmth.

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