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Fiction Short Stories (single Author)

The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios

by (author) Yann Martel

Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
Oct 2004
Short Stories (single author), Literary, 20th Century
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Oct 2004
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Revised and with a new author’s note and cover, here is Booker Prize–winning author Yann Martel’s debut.

First published in 1993, this remarkable collection of four stories launched the career of a masterful writer. In the exquisite title novella, a 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, DC and experiences the Vietnam War and its aftermath through an intense musical encounter. “Manners of Dying” has variations of a warden’s letter to the mother of a son he has just executed, revealing how each life is contained in its end. Finally, in “The Vita Aeterna Mirror Company,”
a young man discovers a strange contraption in his grandmother’s basement. As the machine runs, she reflects upon her beloved husband.

About the author

Yann Martel is the author of Life of Pi, the global bestseller that won the 2002 Man Booker Prize (among other honours) and was adapted to the screen in the Oscar-winning film by Ang Lee. He is also the author of the short story collection The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, the novels Self and Beatrice and Virgil, and the nonfiction work 101 Letters to a Prime Minister. Born in Spain in 1963, Martel studied philosophy at Trent University, worked at odd jobs — tree planter, dishwasher, security guard — and travelled widely before turning to writing. He lives in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, with the writer Alice Kuipers and their four children.

Yann Martel's profile page

Excerpt: The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios (by (author) Yann Martel)

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.

Editorial Reviews

“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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