Book 62 – The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios

Book – The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios
Author – Yann Martel
Year – 1993
Genre – Short Stories

Last year was the first time that I attempted The Book Challenge – falling short at ninety-six – and of all the books I read, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi was one of the very best – a fantastic story which kept me gripped for the entire book and is in my mind, destined to become a GCSE text in years to come.  So when I spotted a collection of Martel’s early work for a very low price recently, I was pretty excited.  Unfortunately, the book did not live up to its expectations.

There are four stories in the book.  The first it the titular The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios.  The Roccamatios are a fictional Finnish family created by the storyteller and his friend Paul who is dying of AIDS.  The idea between them is to create a story between them based on a story for each year from 1901 to the mid eighties – when the story takes place.  Martel’s story is written with interspersed sections describing Paul’s deterioration and the historical stories that the pair base their tale on.  On paper, a cracking idea, but unfortunately the history seems tacked on in a constant bleak update on the horrors of AIDS.  It all simpers along depressingly without actually going anywhere.  It is easily the longest of the short stories, yet it is testament to how dull it becomes, that I thought it was twice as long as it actually is.

The second story is structured far better, yet still meanders without a point for too long.  The title is quite brilliant – The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton – and the writing far more engrossing than the first book, but is effectively based upon one small moral, and possibly becomes a little indulgent.  Having said that, it is a quaint little story, and probably worth your time to read.

The third and fourth stories are a lot more experimental.  Manners of Dying takes the form of a letter from a prison warden to the mother of a recently executed man about how his execution went.  This is then repeated several times with the details changed – a different last meal, a different disposition and so on.  This is again, a great idea, but just nothing happens with it.  The author seems to have run out of steam and then for no particular reason finishes.  It leaves you with yet another story which seems to have no purpose.

The last story – The Vita Aeterna Mirror Company – is easily the best – and the shortest, taking me about twenty minutes to get through.  The writer is listening to his grandmother droning on about how she met his grandfather and eventually the text becomes a repeated blah.  All of this occupies the left hand side of the page, whilst on the right we see his thoughts.  He loves her, but doesn’t like her constant reminiscing.  However, upon finding an old mirror making machine in her cellar which runs on memories, he grows an appreciation for her.  The moral – whilst being pretty obvious from the offset – is pretty sweet, and the unusual writing style adds a something to the story as well.  Of the four, this is the one that I would most recommend.

However, as a whole, this was pretty disappointing.  Whilst Life of Pi is still a book I would massively recommend, I now can’t help but think that this is the one off,  and I am not positive I would read another Martel book.


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