The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios

The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios

4.5 2
by Yann Martel, Jeff Woodman, John Randolph Jones, Barbara Caruso

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Here are four unforgettable stories by the author of Life of Pi. In the exquisite title novella, a very 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 whose horrors and miracles their story echoes. In "The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String… See more details below


Here are four unforgettable stories by the author of Life of Pi. In the exquisite title novella, a very 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 whose horrors and miracles their story echoes. In "The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American composer John Morton," a Canadian university student visits Washington, D.C., and experiences the Vietnam War and its aftermath through an intense musical encounter. In "Manners of Dying," variations of a warden's letter to the mother of a son he has just executed reveal how each life is contained in its end. The final story, "The Challenges of Science," chronicles how when fantasy and reality meet, even one of the great minds of science is confounded.

Written earlier in Martel's career, these tales are as moving as they are thought-provoking, as inventive in form as they are timeless in content. They display that startling mix of dazzle and depth that have made Yann Martel an international phenomenon.

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Editorial Reviews

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
From the Publisher
“Let me tell you a secret: the name of the greatest living writer of the generation born in the Sixties is Yann Martel.”

“A small masterpiece … a serious and convincing work that demands to be read.”
The Guardian (UK)

“Martel’s first book arrives with literary bells ringing … the title story is among the most highly praised in recent memory.”
The Gazette (Montreal)

“This is one of those rare debuts that raises real hope and shows a principled talent excitingly capable of further growth.”
The Observer (UK)

“Yann Martel’s brilliant storytelling...shines brightly.”
The Globe and Mail

“Those who would believe that the art of fiction is moribund — let them read Yann Martel with astonishment, delight and gratitude.”
—Alberto Manguel

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Product Details

HighBridge Company
Publication date:
Edition description:
Unabridged; 4.5 hours on 4 CDs
Product dimensions:
4.90(w) x 5.64(h) x 0.81(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios

I hadn’t known Paul for very long. We met in the fall of 1986 at Ellis University, in Roetown, just east of Toronto. I had taken time off and worked and travelled to India: I was twenty-three and in my last year. Paul had just turned nineteen and was entering first year. At the beginning of the year at Ellis, some senior students introduce the first-years to the university. There are no pranks or mischief or anything like that; the seniors are there to be helpful. They’re called “amigos” and the first-years “amigees”, which shows you how much Spanish they speak in Roetown. I was an amigo and most of my amigees struck me as cheerful, eager and young — very young. But right away I liked Paul’s laidback, intelligent curiosity and his sceptical turn of mind. The two of us clicked and we started hanging out together. Because I was older and I had done more things, I usually spoke with the authority of a wise guru, and Paul listened like a young disciple — except when he raised an eyebrow and said something that threw my pompousness right into my face. Then we laughed and broke from these roles and it was plain what we were: really good friends.

Then, hardly into second term, Paul fell ill. Already at Christmas he had had a fever, and since then he had been carrying around a dry, hacking cough he couldn’t get rid of. Initially, he — we — thought nothing of it. The cold, the dryness of the air — it was something to do with that.

Slowly things got worse. Now I recall signs that I didn’t think twice about at the time. Meals left unfinished. A complaint once of diarrhea. A lack of energy that went beyond phlegmatic temperament. 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 was out of breath and wanted to rest. And he seemed to be losing weight. It was hard to tell, what with the heavy winter sweaters and all, but I was certain that his frame had been stockier earlier in the year. When it became clear that something was wrong, we talked about it — nearly casually, you must understand — and I played doctor and said, “Let’s see . . . breathlessness, cough, weight loss, fatigue. Paul, you have pneumonia.” I was joking, of course; what do I know? But that’s in fact what he had. It’s called Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, PCP to intimates. In mid-February Paul went to Toronto to see his family doctor.

Nine months later he was dead.

AIDS. He announced it to me over the phone in a detached voice. He had been gone nearly two weeks. He had just got back from the hospital, he told me. I reeled. My first thoughts were for myself. Had he ever cut himself in my presence? If so, what had happened? Had I ever drunk from his glass? Shared his food? I tried to establish if there had ever been a bridge between his system and mine. Then I thought of him. I thought of gay sex and hard drugs. But Paul wasn’t gay. He had never told me so outright, but I knew him well enough and I had never detected the least ambivalence. I likewise couldn’t imagine him a heroin addict. In any case, that wasn’t it. Three years ago, when he was sixteen, he had gone to Jamaica on a Christmas holiday with his parents. They had had a car accident. Paul’s right leg had been broken and he’d lost some blood. He had received a blood 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 unexpectedly two years later while being treated for pneumonia. An autopsy had revealed that the man had severe toxoplasmic cerebral lesions. A suspicious combination.

I went to visit Paul that weekend at his home in wealthy Rosedale. I didn’t want to; I wanted to block the whole thing off mentally. I asked — this was my excuse — if he was sure his parents cared for a visitor. He insisted that I come. And I did. I came through. I drove down to Toronto. And I was right about his parents. 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, Jack, didn’t utter a syllable for the rest of that day. Early the next morning he fetched the tool kit in the basement, put his winter parka over his housecoat, stepped out onto the driveway, and proceeded to destroy the family car. Because he had been the driver when they had had the accident in Jamaica, even though it hadn’t been his fault and it had been in another car, a rental. He took a hammer and shattered all the lights and windows. He scraped and trashed the entire body. He banged nails into the tires. He siphoned the gasoline from the tank, poured it over and inside the car, and set it on fire. That’s when neighbours called the firefighters. They rushed to the scene and put the fire out. The police came, too. When he blurted out why he had done it, all of them were very understanding and the police left without charging him or anything; they only asked 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 large, corner-lot house: a burnt wreck of a Mercedes covered in dried foam.

Jack was a hard-working corporate lawyer. When Paul introduced me to him, he grinned, shook my hand hard and said, “Good to meet you!” Then he didn’t seem to have anything else to say. His face was red. Paul’s mother, Mary, was in their bedroom. I had met her at the beginning of the university year. As a young woman she had earned an M.A. in anthropology from McGill, she had been a highly ranked amateur tennis player, and she had travelled. Now she worked part-time for a human rights organization. Paul was proud of his mother and got along with her very well. She was a smart, energetic woman. But here she was, lying awake on the bed in a fetal position, looking like a wrinkled balloon, all the taut vitality drained out of her. Paul stood next to the bed and just said, “My mother.” She barely reacted. I didn’t know what to do. Paul’s sister, Jennifer, a graduate student in sociology at the University of Toronto, was the most visibly distraught. Her eyes were red, her face was puffy — she looked terrible. I don’t mean to be funny, but even George H., the family Labrador, was grief-stricken. He had squeezed himself under the living-room sofa, wouldn’t budge, and whined all the time.

The verdict had come on Wednesday morning, and since then (it was Friday) none of them, George H. included, had eaten a morsel of food. Paul’s father and mother hadn’t gone to work, and Jennifer hadn’t gone to school. They slept, when they slept, wherever they happened to be. One morning I found Paul’s father sleeping on the living-room floor, fully dressed and wrapped in the Persian rug, a hand reaching for the dog beneath the sofa. Except for frenzied bursts of phone conversation, the house was quiet.

In the middle of it all was Paul, who wasn’t reacting. At a funeral where the family members are broken with pain and grief, he was the funeral director going about with professional calm and dull sympathy. Only on the third day of my stay did he start to react. But death couldn’t make itself understood. Paul knew that something awful was happening to him, but he couldn’t grasp it. Death was beyond him.

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