The facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios by Yann Martel

Warning: I’m going to talk about the content of the four stories making up this early effort by Martel.

I do wonder at the notion we have of marking a line between artists whose commitment involves a profound continuing investigation of a Thing, and commercial hacks who are formula writing for no more than mere money. How do you tell which is which? How do I know that my friend Petrus who spent years making pots, dashing them to the ground and then sticking the pieces back together was of the former class? Is it that if you fail to make money at it, this failure maintains your integrity?

This book comprises four stories which explore the act of repetition. I guess it is a vital part of successful writing, to be able to repeat one’s self without the audience getting restless.

The title story is about the narrator watching a close friend die of AIDS. The repetition is in the horrific detail of his decline. It was strangely gripping and I wished I hadn’t been in a cafe at the point where it had me in tears.

Story two was to my mind the last successful. The repetition consists of describing music in detail and for me that doesn’t work. Maybe I can picture a painting through words – maybe – but music, no.

Story three is a letter written by the head of a prison to inform a mother of the death of her son, it’s an official execution by hanging. The last night and the trip to the gallows is written in some detail. The same letter is then written half a dozen times describing a slightly different last night and death. It was very repetitive, but that was important.

Story four is about listening – or not – to an elderly relative who goes on and on. And on. It’s about what happens when you realise you should have been listening and didn’t. Pages of this one are covered in ‘blah blah blah’. Literally. To begin with you feel it is what the old woman is saying. Later, transformatively, you realise that it is what narrator is hearing. He wishes differently, but it’s too late.

I wonder if Martel suffers from the success of Pi. I note almost none of my GR friends have read this. My recommendation is to read it – but I doubt that you should do so because you like short stories. There is nothing about this collection that really fits that notion. They are short pieces and all are original in structure and technique. Interesting and, if darkly so, enjoyable.

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