Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Stories Yann Martel wrote before 'Life of Pi'

I listened to the audiobook version of Yann Martel's novel "Life of Pi" last summer on a 5-hour road trip to one of my favorite places to golf and swim in PA, Treasure Lake.

The story started off slow but picked up momentum as the story focused on a boy who is trapped on a small boat adrift at sea with a big tiger for many months. (Tough for that scenario not to be interesting.) Both survive, and without a doubt Martel's power of imagination is revealed through twists and unexpected turns of the suspenseful tale.

"The Facts Behind the HELSINKI ROCCAMATIOS" (1993, Harcourt Inc, 209 pp., $13 - paperback) is a collection of three stories and a novella that pre-date his Pi adventure. Curious to see what Martel would do with the short-fiction genre, I picked it up at my fave used bookstore (Gently Used Books of Douglassville).

The novella (of the same name as the collection) details a friendship between two young male college students in Toronto, one of whom learns at the tender age of 19 that he is dying of AIDS. He contracted the illness via a blood transfusion after a car wreck in a foreign country when he was 15 and doesn't start to get sick until he gets to college.

So the non-sick friend invents this epic tale for the two to create while the sick friend is convalescing. It involves an Italian family in Finland and what happens to them over the course of a century. The two friends take turns with the years.

I was curious about this fictional family, however, the novella is constructed so that we never read about the Roccomatios - only about a sort of made-up timeline that goes along with the Roccomatios' tale. That timeline's events vary by what's going on with Paul, the sick boy's, health. As his health gets worse, so do his and his friend's depictions of the events of that fictional world.

It's a couple of stories within a story, with the larger tale being the surviving friend's reaction to Paul's dying and death. The Roccomatios' story I could care less about. It was a construct for this larger, overall story. The overall effect, I think, was kind of brilliant. The novella itself, a little dull.

As for the short stories in this collection, they are memorable and also imaginative. It's clear that Martel of 17 years ago was trying out his writing chops here, before he went on to win the Booker Prize with "Pi."

One of the stories is a collection of letters from a prison warden to a mother after her son is executed. Each one is nearly identical, always about a prisoner named Kevin Barlow, detailing what he ate before being put to death, and his demeanor. Every Kevin Barlow wants something different to eat and every Kevin Barlow reacts to his impending death differently. As does the warden. Weird - and dark - story, but interesting.

Another is about an old woman who has a machine that can make mirrors using sand, silver, and a stream of memories.

The stories zipped along for me quicker than the novella. Interesting to read even if not the greatest short fiction ever (that might just be Raymond Carver, in my humble opinion).


Maid Service Chester NY said...

Thought provoking as well as heartrending, Life of Pi moves you through a sea of emotions, sometimes subtlely like a calm tide and at other times like an ocean storm. You'll laugh, cry, and self reflect as you move through this book, and long after you finish it. The author paints a vivid picture of a desperate time in a young man's life where he is forced through experiences that form and transform him, pushing the envelope of doubt and faith until, ultimately, true redemption is realized.

Penelope Sanchez said...

I'd recommend this book to anyone who enjoys the out-of-phase feel of books like Winter's Tale (Helprin), and to anyone fascinated by survival at sea. A rare overlap, but there you have it.

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