Friday, January 22, 2010

Book Review: The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios by Yann Martel

Readers who have come to Yann Martel through his magical account of Pi Patel’s epic journey across the Pacific Ocean in an open boat with his beastly companion will welcome this reissue of his 1993 collection of four short stories: The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios. Although they may not have the almost mythical aura that transforms young Pi’s voyage, the stories are rewarding pieces of fiction and rich augers of what was to come.

In an introduction to the volume, Martel talks about his early work and explains how he decided that writing fiction was for him the one thing needful. “There was something deeply compelling about creating a setting, inventing characters, giving them dialogue, directing them through a plot, and by these means presenting my view of life.” Much of his early work–plays, short fiction, a novel–he rejects as ‘awful,’ ‘bad,’ ‘none of them good,’ the work of a writer learning his craft. Slowly with practice, he finds his voice. He discovers what it is that in his mind makes for a good story: “My developing sense was that the foundation of a story is an emotional foundation. If a story does not work emotionally, it does not work at all. The emotion in question in not the point; be it love, envy, or apathy, so long as it is conveyed in a convincing manner, then the story will come alive. 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 aim.” The four stories collected in this volume presumably represent those in which the author, at least, felt his aim was true.

The idea that literary value lies in some sort of emotional investment balanced by an intellectual distancing is not particularly novel. In the late eighteenth century, the great English Romantic poet William Wordsworth was writing about poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility,” the tranquil recollection no doubt meant to supply the kind of intellectual structure that Martel is talking about. Of course Wordsworth is speaking of poetry, still the application to other genres is not necessarily inappropriate. A few years later, Wordsworth’s contemporary, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was to describe the function of the imagination in terms of the synthesis of opposites, much in the manner of Martel’s blending of feeling and idea–heart and mind. Such balance of opposites would then would seem to be a reasonable standard by which to judge these stories.

The title story of the collection, “The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios,” is perhaps more a novella than a short story. It is a first person account of young man’s attempt to cope with the process of dying, as he watches a friend succumb to the ravages of AIDS, a disease he contracted from a blood transfusion after an accident while with his family vacationing in Jamaica. The story, written at a time when an AIDS diagnosis was akin to a death warrant, describes a scheme developed by the narrator to help himself and his friend endure the hours and days of dying. Taking his cue from Boccaccio’s Decameron, in which a group of people tells stories to pass the time while they try to escape the plague, he proposes that they too should create stories to help pass the empty time. “The transformative wizardry of the imagination. Boccaccio had done it in the fourteenth century, we would do it in the twentieth; we would tell each other stories. But we would be the sick this time, not the world, and we wouldn’t be fleeing it, either. On the contrary: with our stories we would be remembering the world, re-creating it, embracing it. Yes, to meet as storytellers to embrace the world–there, that was how Paul [the AIDS stricken friend] and I would destroy the void.”

The plan they develop is to create stories about an imaginary family in Helsinki, Finland–the Roccamatios. Each story will take as its inspiration a factual event from one year in the twentieth century beginning with 1901 and ending in 1986, the year in which the story is set.
The specific events, the “facts,” will not be the subjects of the stories, rather they will serve as metaphorical catalysts, much in the manner that Homer’s Odyssey serves as a metaphorical–perhaps intellectual–structure for James Joyce’s Ulysses. Martel does not include the actual Roccamatio stories. Instead what he provides are the “facts” that inspired those stories. These are intertwined wi th an account of the ups and downs of Paul’s condition, his highs and lows, and presumably metaphorical indicators of what is happening in his life.

There would also seem to be a further metaphor implicit in the analogy between what is happening to the individual and what is happening in the larger world–microcosm as emblem of the macrocosm and vice versa. Paul has his good days and his bad; the century has its great discoveries, its wars. One day Paul is improving: “He has an appetite and hardly any diarrhoea.” Another day, “Paul has a fungus called Cryptococcus neofomans in his spinal fluid.” In 1928 Mickey Mouse stars in Steamboat Willie; in 1925 Adolph Hitler publishes the first volume of Mein Kampf. The emotional journey of the characters is in this sense tied intellectually to the journey of mankind in the twentieth century. The emotions and the facts complement one another. Form and content blend organically.

“The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton” is the second story in the volume. The narrator, a Canadian philosophy student (much like the narrator of the first story), is wandering around Washington, DC when he comes across an old dilapidated theater in a decaying neighborhood which is advertising a concert the following evening featuring a number of Baroque works and the world premiere of the “Rankin Concerto.” Intrigued, although he maintains that he is not particularly musically knowledgeable, he returns the next night to find a wreck of an auditorium in the process of being demolished and an orchestra of amateur musicians, all veterans of the war in Viet Nam.

Yet despite what would seem to be an unpromising situation, surrounded by the decaying wreck of what was once a center of culture with the prospect of a mediocre performance by marginally skilled artists, the concert proves to be a transforming experience, especially the Rankin Concerto. Even though the musicianship isn’t always equal to the demands of the music, there is something about the performance that transcends its flaws.

John Morton is both composer and soloist. But though his playing is inadequate, still, “the full force of the Rankin Concerto was expressed through Morton’s inept playing. His every false note hinted at impregnable perfection, his every falter was liberating. . . .there was no robotic flawlessness here.” There is something mechanical about perfection; it is in the passion of a man trying to go beyond his abilities that emotion is “perfectly translated from the keenly felt to the heard to the keenly felt again,” or as the poet has it–a man’s reach must exceed his grasp. “The Rankin Concerto wasn’t long, not ten minutes, and they didn’t play it right, nor did they finish it the way they were supposed to, but during those few minutes everything in my life that is waste, torment and drivel was swept away–the clouds parted–and I beheld the sublime.”

The last two stories in the book are somewhat less emotionally charged, much more dominated by their intellectual concern with form. “Manners of Dying” is a collection of letters from a prison warden to the mother of a prisoner describing the details of his last hours. Each is a form letter with variations, different meals, different reactions to religious counseling, different deaths, but each talks about the same prisoner. “The Vita Aeterna Mirror Company: Mirrors to Last Till Kingdom Come” deals with a machine that makes mirrors out of memories spoken into them, no doubt suggesting the reflective qualities of art holding the mirror up to nature. In both stories, however, concerns with form get in the way of the emotional content, rather than meshing in the same kind of imaginative synthesis that characterizes the first two stories. They seem more self conscious. When Martel does manage to balance emotion and idea, form and content, as he does in the first two stories, there is none better, and if he doesn’t always quite manage that balance–well remember the Rankin Concerto.

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