Yann Martel

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Cary Fagan (review date April 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Fagan, Cary. Review of The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories, by Yann Martel. Quill & Quire 59, no. 4 (April 1993): 22.

[In the following review of The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, Fagan offers praise for Martel's experimental style, narrative voice, and touching stories.]

Yann Martel's first collection of stories [The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories] is notable on the one hand for its warm human voice and on the other for a precocious pleasure in experimenting.

The long title story, which won the 1991 Journey Prize, tells of a young man's friendship for another who is dying of AIDS. The unpretentious telling is like a long spiralling descent into sadness and loss. The series of stories about the fictional Roccamatio family that the two friends tell one another to keep despair at bay is a brilliant and ambitious idea that, if not quite fulfilled, is still effective.

The natural voice comes through again in “The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton.” This time the narrator, again a young man, is exploring Washington when he stumbles upon a concert in a decrepit theatre given by the Maryland Vietnam War Veterans' Chamber Ensemble. This fascination with the peculiarly human gives much of the energy to Martel's writing and makes it genuinely touching.

The other two stories in the collection show Martel as the young writer stretching his wings, with the result that they read like workshop exercises. Yet even here touching moments occur, showing that Martel's real subject is the emotional side of our lives. Once again the Journey Prize has brought to our attention a writer of promise and already of some accomplishment.

Merna Summers (review date June 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Summers, Merna. “Re-Examining the Facts.” Canadian Forum 72, no. 820 (June 1993): 41-2.

[In the following review of The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, Summers compares an earlier version of the title story to a later, revised version which appears in the volume.]

Every few years a new writer comes along who is seen at once to be more than usually exciting, a new talent who may very well redraw our map of reality. It is surprising sometimes how little we need to read before we are able to decide this. Even a single story can do it.

That was the case with Yann Martel, whose second published story won the $10,000 Journey Prize two years ago. Reviewing the 1991 Journey Prize Anthology in these pages at that time I wrote:

“The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios,” is a story of extreme youth and death, and I find it hard to describe just how moving it is. … When I finished reading it, I telephoned a friend, wanting company, but I found that I was incoherent; I simply couldn't tell her what had happened to me. … It is one of the strange things about art that what devastates us also in some way heals us, or at least leads us to where we need to go.

This has become the title story in Martel's new collection of four stories [The Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Other Stories], and I was looking forward to reading it again. I am not sure how long it took me to realize that something had changed. Martel's story was still good, but it was not the same story I had read before.

What had changed? At first I thought that Martel had made his story longer, and had lost some torque thereby. Finally, I dug out my copy of the Journey Prize Anthology and discovered that I was both mistaken and not mistaken. The story had been changed, but not in the way I had guessed.

The “facts” in both versions are the same. Two boys of college age, one of them dying of AIDS, invent a game to divert themselves from the grim reality of the illness. They decide to create a story—about a Finnish family of Italian origin, of all things—with each new episode to be based on an actual news event in a different year, which is somehow reflected in the life of one of the “Helsinki...

(The entire section is 27,391 words.)