By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 26, 2014
Yann Martel is a Canadian author whose second novel, Life of Pi, published in 2002, was a best-selling critical success. It won the prestigious Man Booker Prize, awarded to the best English-language novel published in the United Kingdom, and was the basis for an excellent film adaptation directed by Ang Lee, which appeared in 2012.
Martel’s first book is an excellent anthology from 1993 called The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories. As the title story suggests, the edition has plenty of quirky elements. Two of the four stories are clearly experimental fiction, while the title story itself could arguably be classified as such.
That title story has a convoluted premise that shouldn’t work. The unnamed narrator launches the tale by describing his friendship with Paul Atsee, a 19-year-old freshman, which begins when the two meet at college. (The setting is the fictitious Ellis University in the equally fictitious municipality of Roetown, which Martel situates just east of the actual city of Toronto.) At the time, the unnamed narrator was a 23-year-old senior working as an orientation volunteer, but the differences in age and experience are no barrier to the relationship: “[R]ight away I liked Paul’s laid-back, intelligent curiosity and his skeptical turn of mind. The two of us clicked and we started hanging out together.”
But Atsee soon grows ill, and doctors discover that he has AIDS. Today, AIDS is a manageable disease. The story, however, is set in 1986, when the diagnosis was little different from a death sentence. The narrator becomes a helpmeet for the Atsees, spending much of his time at the shell-shocked family’s home in the wealthy Toronto suburb of Rosedale, or with them in hospitals. He fails his senior year of college.
After several pages of prelude, the narrator gets to the heart of his story:
The idea came to me one day as I was pushing a gas mower across an expanse of municipal lawn, my ears muffled by industrial ear protectors. Two words stopped me dead in my tracks: Boccaccio’s Decameron. I had read a beaten-up copy of the Italian classic when I was in India. Such a simple idea: an isolated villa outside of Florence; the world dying of the Black Death; ten people gathered together hoping to survive; telling each other stories to pass the time.
That was it. The transformative wizardry of the imagination. Boccaccio had done it in the fourteenth century, we would do it in the twentieth: we would tell each other stories. But we would be the sick this time, not the world, and we wouldn’t be fleeing it, either. On the contrary: with our stories we would be remembering the world, re-creating it, embracing it. Yes, to meet as storytellers to embrace the world — there, that was how Paul and I would destroy the void.
After some consideration, Paul and the narrator decide that they will tell a cycle of stories, one for each year of the 20th century. Each story will be based on, or at least relate to, a historical event; each will concern a member of the Roccamatios, an invented (by the narrator and Paul) family of Italian extraction living in Helsinki, the capital of Finland. The young men will alternate story-telling responsibilities: At least initially, the narrator handles the odd years, Atsee the even ones.
Here, at last, we reach the final piece of Martel’s complicated premise: The narrator will share year-by-year capsules, not of the stories he and Atsee told one another, but of the historical events that seeded each story. Interspersed between these descriptions are the narrator’s recollection of fleeting details of a story, or of Atsee’s condition at the time, or of his own state of mind.
By all rights, “The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios” shouldn’t work. Its premise is too tortured; its subject, too mawkish. And yet, the story carries great emotional resonance, as this excerpt shows.
1954 — William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies is published. It tells the story of a group of schoolboys who are cast away on a Pacific island. At first they get along and work together towards the common good. But soon their relationships degenerate to murderous savagery. Jack rules.
Not in bed for me, that’s for sure. I’ve thought about it. Better a bang than a whimper. Better a car crash, with metal screaming and glass exploding, than slowly in bed. Better no goodbyes than slowly. Better a bullet than slowly. Just not in bed, not in bed.
1955 — James Dean dies in a car crash.
Paul is in pain. It comes from nowhere. One moment he’s fine, the next he’s writhing weakly. I can do nothing but wait and watch.
“It h-hurts,” he moans (what? where?), fixing me with his eyes. He is dangling over a precipice. Our eyes locked together are like two clasped hands. Should I break eye contact, he will fall to his death. I don’t break eye contact.
1956 — The Soviet Union invades Hungary to bring to heel a country reluctant to march to the drumbeat of communist totalitarianism. Material damage to the country is heavy, and two hundred thousand refugees flee the country for the West.
Paul is resting. Or at least his eyes are closed. Except for the slight rasp of his breathing, there is silence. I am sitting motionless, my arms crossed, my legs crossed. I want to scream.
He awakes. I smile wanly.
“Hi,” I say.
He has chosen this day to talk about God.
“Do you believe in God?” he whispers.
I take note of his tone of voice.
“Yes, I do.”
“Facts” is very much an artifact of a time that has passed, a period when contracting AIDS would almost inevitably lead to a painful death, even for an otherwise healthy, financially secure resident of Canada’s most populous city. Yet this story is animated, lively, powerful — wonderful.
The second story is the most conventional offering in the book, with the arguable exception of its remarkably lengthy title: “The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton.” This tale is also narrated by an unnamed man, a 25-year-old Canadian recalling his visit a few months previously, in October 1988, to an old high-school friend who was living in Washington, D.C.
Because his friend was extremely busy working as a management consultant for Price Waterhouse, the story-teller attends, on his own, an avant-garde music recital. The event is held, bizarrely, at a condemned theater, and it features the world premier of a modern composition by a local Vietnam veteran. After the recital, the narrator buttonholes Morton to express his awe at the composition and performance. Morton’s chronic dissatisfaction with his own effort, and the world’s general indifference to his artistic endeavors, are touching.
The fulcrum of the story is a line from Almayer’s Folly, Joseph Conrad’s first novel, in which the protagonist expresses dismay over how his life has gone off the rails when he worked so hard, and came so close to succeeding, in pursuit of his ambitions. This feels like a somewhat artificial peg for the tale. However, the story is written so beautifully, and Morton’s tale is rendered so wrenchingly, that the result is haunting.
The third story, “Manners of Dying,” consists of a letter written by the warden of a prison describing the final hours of a man who was condemned to be hung. Actually, it consists of several letters, each written by the same warden of the same prison to the same mother of the same condemned man. Each depicts a different reality, one in which different choices — some minor, some major — were made. This is the least successful of the book’s contents, perhaps because the repetition, with minor variations, of the letter seem to strip the event of meaning, even if some of the individual accounts are moving.
The book’s final entry bears another rather clunky and off-putting title: “The Vita Aeterna Mirror Company: Mirrors to Last till Kingdom Come.” The story contains a quasi-magical premise, which I won’t spoil. But the effort qualifies as experimental fiction because of the form in which Martel renders it.
One thread consists of the (again unnamed, again male) narrator’s account of the time he stumbled across an unusual box in his grandmother’s basement, some kind of quaint machine; she responded by preparing it for action and then launching into a story. The second strand is the grandmother’s tale about meeting her long-dead, much-lamented husband. The third is the narrator’s in-the-moment mental reactions to the tale: “Man, she can go on”; “And always the same stories”; “My head will explode soon.”
The piece begins with the grandmother’s story, which is sometimes interrupted, and then introduces, confusingly, the narrator’s thoughts, which appears literally alongside the words spoken by his relative. Only later does Martel launch the explanatory narrative, bits of which are inserted parenthetically between parts of the grandmother’s rambling tale.
Again, as with much of the rest of the collection, this should come off as forced. Yet Martel orchestrates his elements beautifully. The story ends on a poignant note of longing and loss.
I should note that the collection I read was a 2002 reprint (published no doubt to capitalize on the success of Life of Pi) that Martel has tweaked: “slightly revised, the youthful urge to overstate reined in, the occasional clumsiness in the prose I hope ironed out,” as he writes in his brief author’s note.
That introduction is interesting in its own right because it describes the author’s initial exploration and blossoming as a writer. It also reveals that the title story is based on the actual death of a friend from AIDS and that Martel pondered the narrative for some time before he successfully submitted the work for publication.
When I ran across The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, it was one of several seemingly brand-new copies of the volume that were in the $1 remainders bin of my favorite secondhand bookstore. But this provenance belies the book’s artistry; despite being the product of a young writer, its contents are moving and inspirational.