Book review

This thrilling graphic novel about crossword puzzles and spies is a little too clever at times

With subtext and tributes, Italian cartoonist Paolo Bacilieri spins a complex maze.

Design plays a passive role in many graphic narratives, but in Italian cartoonist Paolo Bacilieri’s graphic novel Fun, design is all. The graphic novel, originally published in Italian, is designed to create an impression of a word-and-picture game-board, and the reader is invited to “solve” a puzzle whose clues are revealed in the form of texts, visuals, subplots and characters.

The story of Fun begins after a 10-page, mostly visual, “epilogue” in which Bacilieri invents the fact that the grid of windows on the face of New York City skyscrapers was an inspiration behind the crossword grid, and thus it was natural for the puzzle to be born in the city. Such inventions are spread across the body of the novel and often act as clues to the unfolding story.

For the average Italian family on travel, the magazine La Settimana Enigmistica has always been a favourite companion. The rise of the magazine is closely associated with the growing popularity of the crossword puzzle. Before it appeared on the pages of the popular Italian magazine, how did the crossword puzzle that originated in the city of New York infect the whole world?

Fun is the reconstruction of that story, which starts in America before World War I and very quickly establishes itself on both sides of the Atlantic. Bacilieri, a master of documentation, shines with his research in this work too: every small detail connected to the crossword puzzle, however insignificant, finds a place in this saga.

Mirror, mirror

However, Fun is a lot more than a fascinating story of the crossword puzzle. It is not just a graphic novel, but a crossword puzzle by itself. The central narrative, the story of the crossword, is, in fact, reported through the writer Pippo Quester – who in the novel is seen to be writing his book on the subject – and his interactions with Bacilieri’s alter ego Zeno Porno, a Milanese cartoonist and writer working for Disney.

There are several stories here that take place almost simultaneously. Pippo’s own story, the story of the characters that appear in Pippo’s book, stories of Zeno and those connected to him, and also the dark presence of a girl who watches Pippo and Zeno on behalf of a secret organisation. The last turns at times into a spy thriller. The intent is to keep the reader’s interest alive. The clever plotting of the tale does it without much fuss. In fact, at times, it is too clever for the reader.

As if it were not enough to further enhance the narrative plurality, the main adventures of Zeno are interwoven with short stories about him and other characters – that have appeared in other stories. Apparently disconnected from the main plot – in terms of themes, narrative style and visuals – they make Fun a great game, where the comics medium is completely reinvented and adapted to suit the narrator’s will. Reading appears to be fragmented as it is in any crossword puzzle when the cruciverbalists do not know the solution rightaway and they have to take the help of other interconnected definitions to crack it.

Designing a tribute

Bacilieri’s designs, a true element of continuity within his comics, are usually of great skill. Very detailed and impressive reconstruction of historic architecture and the city, both in Milan and in New York, reaffirms Bacilieri’s control over realistic rendering of architecture in a comic strip. Every part of the comic, even the balloons, is designed to create a visual impact that is consistent with the subject being discussed.

To highlight the importance of design, even the Italian design guru Bruno Munari gets a tribute in the tale. So does celebrated Italian comics artist Guido Crepax. Interestingly, both artists feature as names on tombstones at a Milan cemetery. Nor do the tributes stop with these two.

Author Italo Calvino while talking about his book, The Castle of Cross Destinies, once said, “I thought of constructing a kind of crossword puzzle made of tarots instead of letters, of pictographic stories instead of words.” Bacilieri’s work is an intelligent example of the Calvino exercise.

That Bacilieri had the master storyteller in mind is evident from a panel where he depicts Calvino as a member of a French association, Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (OULIPO), roughly translated: “Workshop of potential literature”. OULIPO members have an insignificant role in the graphic narrative, but the cartoonist’s clever inclusion of the group and its members serves as tribute to Calvino.

The game of links

And it is not only the Calvino-like construction of the narrative. Bacilieri also tries to establish, almost successfully, a relationship between comics and crossword. He begins by telling the reader that Yellow Kid, the first commercially successful newspaper comic strip, and the first crossword puzzle appeared in the same daily, The New York World. This link carries on through Zeno’s discovery of crossword references in comics that the character shares with Pippo. Bacilieri extends the game further, matching the geometric structure of crosswords and the classic grid of cartoon vignettes many times over to highlight the visual similarities that link these two layouts.

A couple of downsides: at times the translation appeared to be literal and there is a typographical error on page 19 where 1871 has become 1971. These notwithstanding, it is one exhilarating ride with some moody excursions. Full of allusions and tributes, the two-part novel – Fun and More Fun – with its clever construction creates a unique reading experience.

By the way, it appears Pippo Quester looks and behaves almost like Umberto Eco. If true, then the subtext is mindboggling.

Fun: Spies, Puzzle Solvers, and a Century of Crosswords, Paolo Bacilieri, SelfMadeHero

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Removing the layers of complexity that weigh down mental health in rural India

Patients in rural areas of the country face several obstacles to get to treatment.

Two individuals, with sombre faces, are immersed in conversation in a sunlit classroom. This image is the theme across WHO’s 2017 campaign ‘Depression: let’s talk’ that aims to encourage people suffering from depression or anxiety to seek help and get assistance. The fact that depression is the theme of World Health Day 2017 indicates the growing global awareness of mental health. This intensification of the discourse on mental health unfortunately coincides with the global rise in mental illness. According to the latest estimates from WHO, more than 300 million people across the globe are suffering from depression, an increase of 18% between 2005 and 2015.

In India, the National Mental Health Survey of India, 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) revealed the prevalence of mental disorders in 13.7% of the surveyed population. The survey also highlighted that common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. Perhaps the most crucial finding from this survey is the disclosure of a huge treatment gap that remains very high in our country and even worse in rural areas.

According to the National Mental Health Programme, basic psychiatric care is mandated to be provided in every primary health centre – the state run rural healthcare clinics that are the most basic units of India’s public health system. The government provides basic training for all primary health centre doctors, and pays for psychiatric medication to be stocked and available to patients. Despite this mandate, the implementation of mental health services in rural parts of the country continues to be riddled with difficulties:

Attitudinal barriers

In some rural parts of the country, a heavy social stigma exists against mental illness – this has been documented in many studies including the NIMHANS study mentioned earlier. Mental illness is considered to be the “possession of an evil spirit in an individual”. To rid the individual of this evil spirit, patients or family members rely on traditional healers or religious practitioners. Lack of awareness on mental disorders has led to further strengthening of this stigma. Most families refuse to acknowledge the presence of a mental disorder to save themselves from the discrimination in the community.

Lack of healthcare services

The average national deficit of trained psychiatrists in India is estimated to be 77% (0.2 psychiatrists per 1,00,000 population) – this shows the scale of the problem across rural and urban India. The absence of mental healthcare infrastructure compounds the public health problem as many individuals living with mental disorders remain untreated.

Economic burden

The scarcity of healthcare services also means that poor families have to travel great distances to get good mental healthcare. They are often unable to afford the cost of transportation to medical centres that provide treatment.

After focussed efforts towards awareness building on mental health in India, The Live Love Laugh Foundation (TLLLF), founded by Deepika Padukone, is steering its cause towards understanding mental health of rural India. TLLLF has joined forces with The Association of People with Disability (APD), a non-governmental organisation working in the field of disability for the last 57 years to work towards ensuring quality treatment for the rural population living with mental disorders.

APD’s intervention strategy starts with surveys to identify individuals suffering from mental illnesses. The identified individuals and families are then directed to the local Primary Healthcare Centres. In the background, APD capacity building programs work simultaneously to create awareness about mental illnesses amongst community workers (ASHA workers, Village Rehabilitation Workers and General Physicians) in the area. The whole complex process involves creating the social acceptance of mental health conditions and motivating them to approach healthcare specialists.

Participants of the program.
Participants of the program.

When mental health patients are finally free of social barriers and seeking help, APD also mobilises its network to make treatments accessible and affordable. The organisation coordinates psychiatrists’ visits to camps and local healthcare centres and ensures that the necessary medicines are well stocked and free medicines are available to the patients.

We spent a lot of money for treatment and travel. We visited Shivamogha Manasa and Dharwad Hospital for getting treatment. We were not able to continue the treatment for long as we are poor. We suffered economic burden because of the long- distance travel required for the treatment. Now we are getting quality psychiatric service near our village. We are getting free medication in taluk and Primary Healthcare Centres resulting in less economic stress.

— A parent's experience at an APD treatment camp.

In the two years TLLLF has partnered with APD, 892 and individuals with mental health concerns have been treated in the districts of Kolar, Davangere, Chikkaballapur and Bijapur in Karnataka. Over 4620 students participated in awareness building sessions. TLLLF and APD have also secured the participation of 810 community health workers including ASHA workers in the mental health awareness projects - a crucial victory as these workers play an important role in spreading awareness about health. Post treatment, 155 patients have resumed their previous occupations.

To mark World Mental Health Day, 2017, a team from TLLLF lead by Deepika Padukone visited program participants in the Davengere district.

Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.
Sessions on World Mental Health Day, 2017.

In the face of a mental health crisis, it is essential to overcome the treatment gap present across the country, rural and urban. While awareness campaigns attempt to destigmatise mental disorders, policymakers need to make treatment accessible and cost effective. Until then, organisations like TLLLF and APD are doing what they can to create an environment that acknowledges and supports people who live with mental disorders. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.