Sunday, 2 January 2011

The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios

by Yann Martel
So I wrote. I wrote another play — an absurdist pastiche, awful — before switching to prose. I wrote short stories — all of them bad — before writing a novel — equally bad — and then more short stories — none of them good. To pursue the violin analogy, I drove the neighbours crazy with my bad playing. But something drew me on. It’s not that I saw a future in it; to think there was a link between my scribblings and books on shelves was preposterous. I didn’t think I was wasting my time when I wrote — it was too exciting — but nor did I think I was building a life. The fact is, I wasn’t thinking at all; I was just doing, madly, like Paganini (without the talent).
Author’s note

It is a nonsense to compare this book of short-ish Borgesque stories (apples) with Martel’s magnum opus, Life of Pi (orange). Let’s concentrate on apples.

In 1986, two Canadian students (the narrator and his friend Paul) decide to write together a family saga. Each year of XX century, or rather, an event of choice of that year, corresponds to one episode from life of a contemporary Finnish family. We never learn much about Roccamatios though; that’s the part of the beauty. The saga is not going to be completed: Paul dies of AIDS around 1962.

In The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton (my, that’s a long name), the narrator attends a performance of Vietnam War Veterans’ orchestra and meets the said John Morton, who is working as a janitor. Probably the best story in the collection.

Just like the title story, Manners of Dying deals with parallel universes. A warden of “correctional institution” writes a series of letters to the mother of certain Kevin Barlow, sentenced to death. Each letter describes Kevin’s last hours, starting with his last meal. Details vary significantly, the outcome is always the same. In Manner of Dying 760, Kevin asks for pen and paper and writes through the night; the resulting pile of papers is “enclosed” with the letter but nobody (with the possible exception of Kevin’s mother) will ever see it.

The Vita Æterna Mirror Company: Mirrors to Last till Kingdom Come is the most magical story of the four. What is the secret ingredient of old mirrors?

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