The Facts Behind The Helsinki Roccamatios

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Overview

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...

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
PRAISE FOR THE FACTS BEHIND THE HELSINKI ROCCAMATIOS

"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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780156032452
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 9/1/2005
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 226
  • Sales rank: 652,410
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.52 (d)

Meet the Author

Yann Martel

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.

Biography

Sometime in the early 1990s, Yann Martel stumbled across a critique in The New York Times Review of Books by John Updike that captured his curiosity. Although Updike's response to Moacyr Scliar's Max and the Cats was fairly icy and indifferent, the premise immediately intrigued Martel. According to Martel, Max and the Cats was, "as far as I can remember... about a zoo in Berlin run by a Jewish family. The year is 1933 and, not surprisingly, business is bad. The family decides to emigrate to Brazil. Alas, the ship sinks and one lone Jew ends up in a lifeboat with a black panther." Whether or not the story was as uninspiring as Updike had indicated in his review, Martel was both fascinated by this premise and frustrated that he had not come up with it himself.

Ironically, Martel's account of the plot of Max and the Cats wasn't completely accurate. In fact, in Scliar's novel, Max Schmidt did not belong to a family of zookeepers -- he was the son of furrier. Furthermore, he did not emigrate from Berlin to Brazil with his family as the result of a failing zoo, but was forced to flee Hamburg after his lover's husband sells him out to the Nazi secret police. So, this plot that so enthralled Martel -- which he did not pursue for several years because he assumed Moacyr Scliar had already tackled it -- was more his own than he had thought.

Meanwhile, Martel managed to write and publish two books: a collection of short stories titled The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios in 1993 and a novel about gender confusion called Self in 1996. Both books sold only moderately well, further frustrating the writer. In an effort to collect his thoughts and refresh his creativity, he took a trip to India, first spending time in bustling Bombay. However, the overcrowded city only furthered Martel's feelings of alienation and dissolution. He then decided to move on to Matheran, a section near Bombay but without that city's dense population. In this peaceful hill station overlooking the city, Martel began revisiting an idea he had not considered in some time, the premise he had unwittingly created when reading Updike's review in The New York Times Review of Books. He developed the idea even further away from Max and the Cats. While Scliar's novel was an extended holocaust allegory, Martel envisioned his story as a witty, whimsical, and mysterious meditation on zoology and theology. Unlike Max Schmidt, Pi Patel would, indeed, be the son of a zookeeper. Martel would, however, retain the shipwrecked-with-beasts theme from Max and the Cats. During an ocean exodus from India to Canada, the ship sinks and Pi finds himself stranded on a lifeboat with such unlikely shipmates as a zebra, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

The resulting novel, Life of Pi, became the smash-hit for which Martel had been longing. Selling well over a million copies and receiving the accolades of Book Magazine, Publisher's Weekly, Library Journal, and, yes, The New York Times Review of Books, Life of Pi has been published in over 40 countries and territories, in over 30 languages. It is currently in production by Fox Studios with a script by master-of-whimsy Jean-Pierre Jeunet (City of Lost Children; Amélie) and directorial duties to be handled by Alfonso Cuarón (Y tu mamá también; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban).

Martel is now working on his third novel, a bizarrely allegorical adventure about a donkey and a monkey that travel through a fantastical world... on a shirt. Well, at least no one will ever accuse him of borrowing that premise from any other writer.

Good To Know

Life of Pi is not Yann Martel's first work to be adapted for the screen. His short story "Manners of Dying" was made into a motion picture by fellow Canadian resident Jeremy Peter Allen in 2004.

When he isn't penning modern masterpieces, Martel spends much of his time volunteering in a palliative care unit.

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

Table of Contents

The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios
The Time I Heard The Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton
Manners of Dying
The Mirror Machine
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First Chapter

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.
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