Given the spectacular success of Canadian writer Yann Martel's bestselling novel Life of Pi (winner of the 2002 Man Booker Prize and Amazon.com's Best Book of 2002) it's no surprise that his early short story collection, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, would attract new readers. Originally published in 1993, these four well-crafted stories have been slightly revised by him for this new edition (the book's first publication in America). Only one of these stories, "Manners of Dying," reads like apprentice work, but even this piece is highly accomplished and full of interest. Every page here shows the development of Martel's stealthy, understated prose (think Paul Auster with a Canadian quietude). In fact, the title story begins so calmly and matter-of-factly that the opening pages feel almost listless. A college senior describes his budding friendship with the freshman he has been assigned to shepherd through the first months of the school year. When the new friend is diagnosed with AIDSs (it is the mid-1980s, and this is a more-or-less immediate death sentence) the emotional stakes gradually increase, not only in predictable ways, as the reluctant narrator is drawn further into his friend's life, but in the jokes, arguments, and revelations brought to light by their collaboration in a sparkling intellectual game--a story the friends write together, in alternating turns--that provides a delicate scaffold for the private drama of death. --Regina Marler
From Publishers Weekly
Pathos is leavened with inventiveness and humor in this collection of a novella and three short stories first published in a slightly different version in Canada in 1993, nearly 10 years before Martel's Booker-winning Life of Pi. The minor key is established in the title novella, a graceful, multilayered story of a young man dying of AIDS, told through the refracting lens of the history of the 20th century. Infected by a blood transfusion, Paul receives the diagnosis during his freshman year of college. The narrator, Paul's student mentor, devises a plan to keep Paul engaged in life—they will invent the story of the Roccamatio family of Helsinki, which will have 100 chapters, each thematically linked to an event of the 20th century. The connection between the history, the stories and Paul's condition is subtle and always shifting, as fluid and elusive as life itself. The experience of death is delicately probed in the next two stories as well: in one, a Canadian student's life is changed when he hears the Rankin Concerto, written in honor of a Vietnam veteran; in the other, a prison warden reports to a mother on her son's last moments before he is executed. The book closes with a surreal fable in which mirrors are made from memories. These are exemplary works of apprenticeship, slight yet richly satisfying.
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