Wednesday, 30 July 2008

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

Like many people, I first encountered Yann Martel's work with the stunning "Life of Pi", which was a playful and engaging book with dark notes to it, and which holds up to repeated readings. (There are other, less kind views of the book on librarything.)

"The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios" is a book of Martel's short fiction written prior to "Life of Pi". Other reviews (1 2)have criticised his experimentation with narrative devices as overly contrived. I can see that three of the four stories could be read that way, and to be honest, it's hard to shake that off as being anything other than a fair criticism.

The titular story revolves around storytelling game in which a man and his friend escape from a devastating illness by creating the history of a fictional family, kind of like "Hundred Years of Solitude: The Home Game". There are nice spots in the story, but on the whole the device does overstay its welcome a bit.

The next story is entitled "The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton". The lack of economy in even the names of stories tells you something about the maturity of his writing, although in this case, the story transcends its title. It is an ode to serendipity, to siezing the moment to discover something of the truth of another human being. The narrator stumbles on to a performance by a veterans' orchestra of a series of works, including the titular Rankin concerto. His pursuit of and interaction with the composer is well handled, and rings true with its small details of a failed life with brief hints of greatness. Not to spoil the next review, but I have a cold at the moment, and blew through this book and "A Thousand Splendid Suns" by Khaled Hosseini in a single sitting. Reading these books one after the other helped me see that this story is the strongest in the book precisely because it highlight's the author's ability to collect and present the details that make a compelling character.

The other stories in the book display this talent to perhaps lesser effect. "Manner of Dying" is engaging enough, but reads somewhat like an episode of the Twilight Zone, but without any metaphysical questions. "The Vita Æterna Mirror Company" is also engaging enough, but is so uneconomical with space (half the page is often literally filled with "blah blah blah") that it reads as though it were five pages of story spread thinly to cover just over forty pages. Contrast this with Borges, who is so economical that five pages merit their own careful study and reflection, or with Updike, whose short stories are so dense with descriptive detail that I can typically only read one or two at a sitting before my focus is strained (perhaps reading Updike is the antidote to the lack of focus that Google is purported to be engendering in modern readers).

In short, this is a collection that has its moments, but is obviously among the author's early work. To be honest, it's not a book that I would have bought myself, but having received it as a gift, I'm glad to have had the chance to read it (the "Rankin" story especially).

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