The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and other stories
by Yann Martel
This set of four stories are incredibly moving, but each one begins so simply and matter-of-factly that you don’t realise how much you’ve been sucked in until the emotional force suddenly hits you. It’s a wonderful skill for a writer to have.
The stories appear to be taken from Martel’s own life, which may or may not be true. The narrator is certainly the same in all four, with just a few years passing between them. Whether or not they’re true doesn’t really matter, because the point isn’t the storylines themselves but how Martel tells it. He has a way of simply stating facts about the world as he sees it that somehow produces beautiful, emotionally powerful prose.
The first and title story is about a young man at university whose friend is dying of AIDS. The narrator devises a method of passing the time/distracting themselves from the horrors of reality, which is for them to invent stories about the fictional Roccamatios family, living in Helsinki (a place neither man has ever visited). They decide that it should be a saga of the twentieth century. They take turns to choose a historical event for each year and then tell a story about the Roccamatios that reflects it.
The story of the Roccamatios is not what is printed here. The historical events are given as a sort of structure to the story and they often reflect the mood of the characters, with war or murder chosen in darker moods, artistic or liberal events in brighter ones. It’s a fascinating device. But, really, this is the story of the friendship, the family, the coping methods, the horrors of an illness that was only just beginning to be understood (it is 1987) and death.
In fact death is the overarching link between all of the stories. The second is about a concerto written by a former soldier about his friend who died in the Vietnam War. The evening of the performance is described in great detail, from the venue to the musicians to the music itself. Again, it’s a curious device for getting at the story of the soldier and the life lesson that is learned, but it works wonderfully well.
The other stories delighted me with their surprising forms so I won’t reveal anything about them but that they are wonderful things. As far as I know this is Martel’s only short story collection, but his third novel was published this year so I will buy that as soon as the paperback is available. He’s a masterful writer, truly.
First published in 1993 by Faber and Faber.
This edition, revised and with an introduction by the author, published 2004 by Canongate Books.