the forward of THE FACTS BEHIND THE HELSINKI ROCCAMATIOS, Yann
Martel, who is best known for his novel LIFE OF PI, shares how he
spent years honing his craft and writing short stories and plays,
some more successful than others. Now he has collected four of his
best earlier stories (written in the 1980s) in a slender volume
that packs an emotional and creative punch.
The title novella finds two young college friends struggling with
issues of mortality as one dies of AIDS. The narrator, a college
senior, is dumbfounded when he learns that his 19-year-old friend
Paul has been diagnosed with AIDS. As Paul withers away (Martel
writes that the flesh "melts"), his friend becomes part of the
family, spending time and energy caring for Paul. As time goes on,
he devises a plan to lift Paul's spirits and occupy their time.
They will compose an epic story of a family in 86 parts, one part
for each year of the century thus far. The activities of the
Roccamatios, a Helsinki family of Italian origin, will mirror the
events of the 20th century. Soon, the young men find parallels in
Paul's life and dying in history. Their story is about the troubled
century with moments of hope --- and it is implicitly Paul's story
of dying as well.
Heartbreaking and well written as it is, it is sometimes difficult
to decipher the parallels Martel intends from historical moments
--- the parallels and ironies that Paul and his friend feel
instinctively and deeply.
The second story, "The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin
String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American
Composer John Morton," is just as well written as the
"Roccamatios," perhaps even more so. A young man in Washington D.C.
for the first time is exploring the city and chances upon a music
concert in a soon-to-be demolished theater. The highlight of the
evening is the premiere of the Donald J. Rankin Concerto with One
Discordant Violin, an indescribably moving piece about the loss and
violence of the Vietnam War. After the performance, the narrator
follows the soloist and composer to his job as a bank janitor and
learns the story behind the music and its creator.
While less compelling, the other two stories in this collection,
"Manners of Dying" and "The Mirror Machine," are also interesting
and original. Somewhat different in tone and style from LIFE OF PI,
THE FACTS BEHIND THE HELSINKI ROCCAMATIOS is just as
thought-provoking and unique. It gives the reader an interesting
glimpse into the maturation and evolution of Martel as a
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 21, 2011