Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios

The Facts Behind the Helsinki RoccamatiosThe Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios by Yann Martel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Would a collection like Yann Martel's The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios gained notice if it hadn't been for the success of his Life of Pi?  Flipping through the first few pages of Roccamatios got me wondering about that.

It's not that Roccamatios is a bad book; in fact, the four stories are audacious in style.  But they're not by any means spectacular, and I think, were it not for Pi, might have been relegated to anthologies.

The first story is the eponymous novella, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios.  To help his friend Paul cope with AIDS, the narrator concocts an epic project: the history of a family, the Roccamatios of Helsinki (to understand why you have such an un-Finnish name in Finland, you have to read the book).  The history would be spread out over 100 parts, the theme of each part corresponding to a year in the 20th century.

We only get to hear bits and pieces of the Roccamatio story; instead, more prominent are the historic events of each year.  But really, the Roccamatio project isn't the focus of Roccamatios: it's a device by which Martell marks the passage of time of the course of Paul's disease.  Martell avoids the cliches associated with AIDS.  Instead, he conveys the  frustration, devastation, and manners of coping of those afflicted and their families.  For that, the time device comes to great effect without at all intruding into the narrative.

Like Roccamatios, the other stories are also experiments in narrative.

The second story, The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton (whew!) uses music as a narrative device.

The third story, Manners of Dying, takes on the aspect of black comedy with its patterns and variations in a warden's letter to the mother of an executed inmate.

The last story, The Vita Aeterna Mirror Company: Mirrors to Last till Kingdom Come, is the most experimental, listening in as it does on the rambling conversation of an old woman, with asides from her grandson.

The experimentation works seamlessly in all the stories; in fact, they're integral to the narrative.  In all of them, Martell shows a masterful hand.  But I can't help but think that experimentation is the binding theme in this collection, hence, we get only the paltry four.

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