Yann Martel

The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios

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The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios Summary

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The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories is a 1993 collection of short stories by Canadian author Yann Martel, best known for his 2001 Booker Prize-winning novel, Life of Pi. The title story follows a young man as he watches his friend Paul die of AIDS: the two men pass time on the ward by inventing stories about the fictional Roccamatio family. The second story in the volume, “The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton,” follows another young man as he attends a musical performance given by Vietnam veterans. “Manners of Dying” is a series of nine letters, written by a prison officer to the mother of an executed prisoner. The final story in the collection, “The Via Aeterna Mirror Company: Mirrors to Last till Kingdom Come,” imagines a machine which turns memories into mirrors, bringing a young man to a greater appreciation of his grandmother’s life. The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios was re-published in 2004 with edits and a new introduction by the author.

“The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios” is the opening story of the volume. The narrator’s younger friend Paul has contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion administered after a car accident. He is dying. The bulk of the story takes place at Paul’s bedside, as the narrator tries to entertain and distract him. Together, the two young men devise stories about a family of Italian immigrants—the Roccamatios—living in Helsinki, Finland. They organize their fiction by keying each story thematically or symbolically to a historical event chosen from the Encyclopedia Britannica: for each story they pick an event from a different year, from 1901 to 1986. The events they choose range from the birth of the Dionne quintuplets in 1934 to wars and scientific discoveries. In subtle ways, the choice of events reflects developments on the ward, as Paul undergoes various treatments and receives other visitors.

The stories of the Roccamatios are interspersed with Paul’s slow decline, both physical and psychological, as he faces his inevitable death. Paul’s family appears too: with Paul’s father, Jack, the narrator discusses historical events in a less whimsical way, noting that Jack, too, has retreated into historical knowledge as a way of coping with the foreshortening of his son’s life: “I love the man because of his pain. When we talk about the Battle of Queenston Heights or the tragic Tecumseh or the tireless John Graves Simcoe, I come away with the impression that we have been talking about Paul all along.”

The story ends with Paul’s death, and the narrator’s grief and despair: “Our mission is a cleansing one; we must scour the earth of anything living. Death is our destiny and destruction our greatest talent. So hip-hip-hooray for war! Three cheers for poverty!…LONG LIVE DEATH!”

In “The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton,” a young man comes to Washington, D.C. to visit a friend. The friend is swamped at work—for professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers—and the narrator is left to his own devices. By chance, he stumbles upon a performance of classical music given by a string quartet of Vietnam War veterans in a derelict theater. The piece is unfinished, and the performance amateurish, but the narrator is incredibly moved by the music, which he feels captures the emotional aftermath of the war in Vietnam with “a mix of perfect beauty and cathartic error.” So excited is he by the music that he tracks down its composer, John Morton, at his job as an overnight janitor for a bank. John and the narrator discuss the meaning of art and life.

“Manners of Dying” is based on the real-life execution by the Malaysian authorities of Australian tourist Kevin Barlow, who had been caught in possession of a small quantity of heroin. The story comprises nine letters written by Harry Parlington, the warden of the Cantos Correctional Institution, to Barlow’s mother. Each letter describes the twelve hours leading up to Kevin’s death, but each letter varies in its details and emphasis: indeed, the letters frequently contradict one another.

In the collection’s final story, “The Via Aeterna Mirror Company: Mirrors to Last till Kingdom Come,” a young man is visiting his elderly grandmother. She tries to tell him stories from the history of his family, but he refuses to listen: her dialogue is rendered as “blah blah blah.” Searching her house for a pair of moccasins, the narrator comes across a machine that makes mirrors and asks his grandmother how it works. She explains that it requires four ingredients: oil, sand, silver, and memories. She demonstrates the machine, using her own memories; now the narrator is able to attend to the sad story of her life and her many years as a widow.

The formally inventive stories of The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios each explore in different ways a young man’s coming to terms with death while learning the value of art and storytelling. The title story was generally well-received, but the collection as a whole was considered a “disappointment” (Kirkus Reviews) by many critics.