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The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios

The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios

4.5 2
by Yann Martel

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Here are four unforgettable stories by the author of Life of Pi. Written earlier in Martel's career, these tales display that startling mix of dazzle and depth that have made Yann Martel an international phenomenon.

Inventive in form and timeless in content, each story is moving and thought-provoking. A Canadian university student visiting Washington, D.C.,


Here are four unforgettable stories by the author of Life of Pi. Written earlier in Martel's career, these tales display that startling mix of dazzle and depth that have made Yann Martel an international phenomenon.

Inventive in form and timeless in content, each story is moving and thought-provoking. A Canadian university student visiting Washington, D.C., experiences the Vietnam War through an intense musical encounter. Variations of a warden's letter to the mother of a man he has just executed reveal how each life is contained in its end. A young man's fascination with the mirror-making machine he finds in his grandmother's attic is juxtaposed with the reminiscences it evokes from his grandmother. And, in the exquisite title story, a young man dying of AIDS joins his friend in fashioning a story of the Roccamatio family of Helsinki, set against the yearly march of the twentieth century.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher


"Each of these stories is a performance, a high-wire act in which the author sets himself an unusual challenge and dazzles us as he pulls it off. "--The Washington Post Book World

"With uncommon dexterity, Martel . . . inject[s] real, poignant feeling into cleverly conceived experimental fictions."--Entertainment Weekly

Steven Moore
It's the perfect gift for the person who would appreciate the literary equivalent of tickets to the Cirque du Soleil.

Each of these stories is a performance, a high-wire act in which the author sets himself an unusual challenge and dazzles us as he pulls it off.
— The Washington Post

Janet Maslin
So this novella becomes an odd hybrid: part history, part Roccamatio fiction, part poignantly evoked medical crisis. ("When you're with people who are really sick," the narrator observes, "you discover what an illusion science can be.") And here, at least, Mr. Martel achieves a graceful balance. The seeds of Life of Pi can be found in the engaging narrative voice, in its curious digressions, in its mixture of unexpected playfulness with the gravity of imminent death. Will 1938 be remembered for the Nazi pogroms of Kristallnacht, or for the invention of the ballpoint pen? The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios invents an odd, wishful universe that gives these two options equivalent moral weight.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Pathos is leavened with inventiveness and humor in this collection of a novella and three short stories first published in a slightly different version in Canada in 1993, nearly 10 years before Martel's Booker-winning Life of Pi. The minor key is established in the title novella, a graceful, multilayered story of a young man dying of AIDS, told through the refracting lens of the history of the 20th century. Infected by a blood transfusion, Paul receives the diagnosis during his freshman year of college. The narrator, Paul's student mentor, devises a plan to keep Paul engaged in life-they will invent the story of the Roccamatio family of Helsinki, which will have 100 chapters, each thematically linked to an event of the 20th century. The connection between the history, the stories and Paul's condition is subtle and always shifting, as fluid and elusive as life itself. The experience of death is delicately probed in the next two stories as well: in one, a Canadian student's life is changed when he hears the Rankin Concerto, written in honor of a Vietnam veteran; in the other, a prison warden reports to a mother on her son's last moments before he is executed. The book closes with a surreal fable in which mirrors are made from memories. These are exemplary works of apprenticeship, slight yet richly satisfying. Agent, Jackie Kaiser. (Dec.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Having delivered a nail-biting narrative with Life of Pi, Martel chooses not to repeat himself, here offering four meditative stories that test the limits of the form. In the longest, the narrator and a friend slowly perishing of AIDS swap stories, centered on the imaginary Roccamatios of Helsinki, that reflect events of the 20th century. We don't get their stories, however, just the events that inspire them, which creates an appropriate sense of being shut out (just as the narrator can't really enter his friend's pain), though it can be a little distancing. In "Manners of Dying," variations of the same letter written by a prison warden to a woman whose son has just been executed reveal the horror of capital punishment. In the especially intriguing "The Vita Aeterna Mirror Company," an old woman reiterates memories (in a narrow column) to her newly alert grandson (whose thoughts fill the page). Startlingly, she even shows him a machine that makes mirrors out of memories. Elusive and thought-provoking, though sure to confound anyone who reads for plot, this collection is recommended for public and academic libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 8/04.]-Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
This mixed-bag of three stories and a novella first appeared in 1993, nine years before its Canadian author's Booker Prize winner, Life of Pi. The stories are comparatively weak. "Manners of Dying" contains alternative versions of the letter a prison warden must send to the mother of a young convict over whose execution he presides. A few of the several scenarios (describing the prisoner's reaction to his imminent death) are harshly moving, but the story as a whole is distinctly gimmicky. In another, an unnamed narrator re-creates "The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton." The chamber piece so identified memorializes the Vietnam War with awkward intensity, in "a mix of perfect beauty and cathartic error." Martel's development of the premise is disappointingly banal. "The Via Aeterna Mirror Company: Mirrors to Last till Kingdom Come" describes, in a mixture of prose and verse, its narrator's slow comprehension of his grandmother's long widowhood and stoical old age, the facts of which are "stored" in a marvelous machine that "runs on" her memories. It's a thin fantasy, filled with redundant padding, that reads like an abandoned Ray Bradbury effort. Then there's the title novella, set in 1986, about a college student's slow dying from AIDS (contracted during an emergency blood transfusion), as described by the friend who endures the ordeal with him, ceaselessly visiting and offering support, concocting an ongoing story about an imaginary Finnish family: "a story in eighty-six episodes, each echoing one event from one year of the unfolding century." As his friend's "contributions" remain hopeful andencouraging, the patient's own tales grow increasingly despairing and apocalyptic: the surrounding story's progression is precise, impressively imagined, and immensely moving. Overall, a disappointment. "The Facts," though, represents the best reason we've been given yet to keep reading Martel. Agency: Westwood Creative Artists

Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
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Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)

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I hadn't known Paul for very long. We had met at Trent University in Peterborough in the fall of 1987. I had worked and travelled around and I was older than him, twenty-four and in fourth year. He had just turned nineteen and was entering first year. At the beginning of the year at Trent, some senior students introduce the first-years to the university. There are no pranks or anything like that; the seniors are there to be helpful. They're called "amigas" and the first-years "amigees", which shows you how much Spanish they speak in Peterborough. I was an amiga and most of my amigees struck me as good-humoured, eager children. But Paul had a laid-back, intelligent curiosity and a skeptical turn of mind that I liked. And it happened that because of our parents' jobs we had both lived in Mexico City for a few years when we were kids. The two of us clicked and we became good friends. We did things together and talked all the time. Because I was older and I had seen more things, I would usually fall into the role of the wise old guru and Paul into that of the young disciple. But then he would say something that threw my pompousness right into my face and we would laugh and break from these roles.

Then, hardly into second term, Paul fell ill. Already at Christmas he had a fever, and ever since then he had been carrying this cough around. If he moved suddenly, if he sat down or got up too quickly, for example, he would erupt into a dry, hacking cough. Initially, he, we, thought nothing of it. The cold, the dryness of the air -- it was something to do with that.

But slowly things got worse. Now I recall signs that I didn't think twice about at the time. He complained once ofdiarrhea. he seemed less energetic. One day we were climbing the stairs to the library, hardly twenty-five steps, and when we reached the top, we stopped. I remember realizing that the only reason we had stopped was because Paul wanted to rest. He was out of breath. And he was never finishing his meals, either, and seemed to be losing weight. It was hard to tell, what with the heavy winter sweaters and all, but I'm certain that his frame had been stockier. Finally, when he was getting winded at the smallest effort, it became clear that something was wrong. We talked about it -- nearly casually, you must understand -- and I played doctor, and said, "Hum. Out of breath, cough, weight loss, tiredness -- Paul, you have pneumonia." I was joking, of course. Ironically, that's in fact what he had. It's called Pneumoncystis carinii pneumonia, PCP to intimates. Late in February, Paul left for Toronto to see his family doctor.

Eight months later he was dead.

AIDS. He said it to me over the phone in this strange, removed voice. He had been gone for a week. He had just got back from the hospital, he told me. I reeled. AIDS. AIDS! My first thoughts were for myself. Had I ever drunk out of his glass? Used his soap? Come into contact with his blood? I tried to remember if he had ever cut himself in my presence. Or scratched me accidentally. Then I thought of him. I thought of sex, of homosexuality. But Paul wasn't gay. I mean, he had never told me so outright, but I knew him well enough and I had never detected the least ambivalence. That wasn't it, anyway. Four years ago, when he was fifteen, he had gone to Jamaica on holiday with his parents. They had had a car accident and Paul had been gashed in the left thigh. He had lost a quantity of blood and had received a transfusion at the local hospital. Six witnesses of the accident had come along to volunteer blood. Three were of the right blood group. Several phone calls and a little research turned up the fact that one of the three had died two years later of toxoplasmic cerebral lesions while being treated for pneumonia, a suspicious combination.

I went to visit Paul that weekend at his home in Rosedale. I didn't want to -- it was he who asked; I wanted to block the whole thing off; I asked, this was my excuse, if he was sure his parents cared for a visitor -- but he insisted that I come. And I did, I came through. And I was right. Because what hurt most that first weekend was not Paul, but Paul's family.

After learning how he had probably caught the virus, Paul's father didn't utter a syllable for three days. Then, early one morning, he fetched the tool kit in the basement, stepped out to the driveway and destroyed the family car. Because he had been the driver when they had had the accident; even though it hadn't been his fault and it had been in another car, a rented car. He took a hammer and shattered all the windows and lights and then he scrapped and trashed the body and then he banged nails into the tires. Then he siphoned the gasoline from the tank, poured it over and inside the car and set it on fire. The neighbours called the police and the fire department and they rushed to the scene, but when he blurted out why he was doing it, they were very understanding and put the fire out and left without charging him or anything, only asking if he wanted to go to the hospital, which he didn't. So that was the first thing I saw when I walked up to Paul's house -- a burnt wreck of a Mercedes covered in dried-out foam.

Meet the Author

Yann Martel was born in Spain in 1963 of Canadian parents. Life of Pi won the 2002 Man Booker Prize and has been translated into more than forty languages. A #1 New York Times bestseller, it spent 104 weeks on the list and was adapted to the screen by Ang Lee. He is also the author of the novels Beatrice and Virgil and Self, the collection of stories The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, and a collection of letters to the prime minister of Canada, 101 Letters to a Prime Minister. He lives in Saskatchewan, Canada.

Brief Biography

Montreal, Quebec, Canada
Date of Birth:
June 25, 1963
Place of Birth:
Salamanca, Spain
B.A. in philosophy, Trent University, Ontario, 1986

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