The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios is a book I would not have bought for myself. The title mades no sense to me, for one. But a friend with good taste gave me the book, so I decided to give it go. The author, Yann Martel, also wrote the best-selling Life of Pi.
Yann Martel is astoundingly creative in its narrative format and painfully truthful in his portrayal of the realities of life. The book comprises the following four novellas.
1. The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios
In the title story, a narrator accompanies a young man who is dying of AIDs through his last days. To cope with the endless days in hospital, they write a book together about a fictional family: the Roccamatios from Helsinki. Each chapter based on a major event in each year of the last century.
The actual story of the Helsinski Roccamatios is never told. The historical facts for each year are juxtaposed with the description of a person dying from AIDs. This pits the triumph of world progress against the tragedy of one person’s death. The account is very believable, and very sad.
2. The Time I Heard the Private Donald J Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton
Yes, that is the actual title of the second story in the book. You already know it’s going to be an eccentric tale. An unknown composer’s unknown composition is played badly by an unknown ensemble in an unknown decrepit theatre. Yet when played, the piece has the impact of an oncoming train, and fills the heart with both despairing sorrow and soaring delight.
The narrator later finds out that the man who wrote and performed that brilliant piece of music is a janitor. He makes you wonder how many people out there who have genius which is never discovered by the world because of their circumstances and lack of opportunity.
3. Manners of Dying
In the third story, a series of nine letters are written by a warden of a prison to the mother of a young man who was executed by hanging. He provides a sobering glimpse into how a person behaves in the last few hours before he goes to the gallows.
4. The Vita Aeterna Mirror Company
The last story is a mental dialogue between a young man and his grandmother. Words on the left side of the page are the words of the grandmother. Those on the right side are the young man’s thoughts as she is speaking. Text which fills the whole horizontal space is the young man speaking from a later time as the narrator of the story. The genius is not the story itself, but the clever use of the spatial layout.
Who should read the Helsinki Roccamatios
Those who have family or friends dying from AIDs
This book may be cathartic simply by speaking so honestly and clearly about what AIDs is like, instead of hushing the facts as many do.
Martel certainly writes in a way I have never seen before. His style is experimental, yet he succeeds in drawing the reader into the story. We can learn a lot from his daring uniqueness.
Quotes from the Helsinki Roccamatios
My favourite quote
“The foundation of a story is an emotional foundation. If a story does not work emotionally, it does not work at all… But a story must also stimulate the mind if it does not want to fade from memory. Intellect rooted in emotion, emotion structured by intellect – in other words, a good idea that moves – that was my lofty aim.” (page viii-ix )
“We were young, and the young can be radical. We’re not encrusted with habits and traditions. If we catch ourselves in time, we can start all over.” (page 17-18)
“Lasting optimism has one ally: reason. Any optimism that is unreasonable is bound to be dashed by reality, leading to even more unhappiness. Optimism, therefore, must always be illuminated by the gentle, purging light of reason and be unshakeably grounded in sanity of mind, so that pessimism becomes a foolish, short-sighted attitude.” (page 27)
“What a strange, wondrous thing, music. At last the chattering mind is silenced. No past to regret, no future to worry about, no more frantic knitting of words and thoughts. Only a beautiful, soaring nonsense. Sound – made pleasing and intelligible through melody, rhythm, harmony and counterpoint – becomes our thinking. The grunting of language and the drudgery of semiotics are left behind. Music is a bird’s answer to the noise and heaviness of words. It puts the mind in a state of exhilarated speechlessness.” (page 96)
Other reviews of the Helsinki Roccamatios
Kathy Pfister writes about her personal reaction to the sadness found in the first story. It reminded her, as it did me, of the time she herself accompanied a dying person on the last leg of his earthly journey.