The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios by Yann Martel

I read Yann Martel’s popular, highly praised, Booker-winning novel, Life of Pi earlier, and I liked it a lot. However, there was one small detail in Life of Pi I could never quite forgive or forget: a character in the novel claims that I will surely become a believer in God after reading Pi’s story, if I haven’t been a believer so far. Well, I considered this claim a bit presumptuous to begin with, and sure enough, I didn’t become a religious person just by reading the novel. Life of Pi is a good book, one I recall often and with pleasure, and Pi himself is one of the most likeable protagonists I’ve come across in a long-long time – and still, it continues to bother me that the novel tried to interpret itself for me, told me in advance what I would (or should) feel by the time I got to the end, and then it failed to create the impression it promised so vehemently.

Anyway, I wasn’t at all set against Yann Martel, and I was planning to read this slim collection of stories ever since a good acquaintance of mine wrote a highly favorable review of it. Helsinki contains four early stories by Yann Martel. The title story is about the last months of a young university student dying in AIDS; the second story, ‘The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton’, deals with the wonderful, unique, life-changing and life-preserving effect of music and art in general; ‘Manners of Dying’ tells the story of the last night and execution of a young man sentenced to death in several different versions; while ‘The Vita Æterna Mirror Company: Mirrors to Last till Kingdom Come’ mostly deals with the importance of remembering and the preservation of the past.

I consider all four stories good, but let me add that the title story is such a simple, honest, heart-wrenching work of art, devoid of any kind of melodrama and kitsch that I would have forgiven Martel quite a lot after this story. As it happened, I didn’t have anything to forgive him for because the other short stories are good as well. True, they are not as good as Helsinki, but they are way better, more authentic and more clever than a whole lot of short stories I encountered in my life which I read in ten minutes and then forgot in five.

As I was writing this entry, I tried to find some points of connection among the four short stories, and perhaps it’s not taking it too far to say that each of the four stories deals at least partly with the way memories, art and stories in general help to understand life and/or make it more bearable even when one is already touched by the shadow of death.

Although when I was reading these short stories, it never occurred to me to compare them to Life of Pi – which is without a doubt a more well-structured, more mature book – , as the two books seemed so different from each other, after some time I realized that there is a lot in common in these two books, and in fact, Life of Pi is exactly about that saving effect of art which I mentioned in the previous paragraph in connection with Helsinki.

Of course it’s quite obvious from the stories in this collection that they were written by quite a young man, and they often seem somewhat immature, so it’s not surprising that this book didn’t kindle too much interest before Martel won the Booker with Life of Pi. But I’m really pleased that Life of Pi became a popular and successful novel, as it taught me the name of Yann Martel and in a way made it possible for me to read these early stories as well – stories I appreciate more than Life of Pi. The short stories in Helsinki doesn’t tell me what I should feel during or after reading, and they don’t promise me such things that my belief, world view, or anything will undergo an unprecedented change if I read them. They are simply good stories which affect me, and evoke strong emotions in me – emotions I won’t air and analyze on this blog.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

It happens to me quite often that I come across a book at random and it suddenly exerts an irresistible force on me. I don’t think there’s anything miraculous in this, I simply mean that a good title, a nice cover or a chance sentence I happen to read when picking up the book can awaken my interest so much that I feel I cannot live without knowing what’s in between the covers. Now, I don’t really know what exactly kindled my interest in Life of Pi, as usually I’m not particularly into novels featuring animals or overtly religious themes, and I had an idea that Life of Pi was such a novel. In retrospect, I think I was hooked by nothing else but the cover which I liked so much that I did not care about the themes of the novel at all. Anyway, I became interested, and then felt I must buy the novel and read it as soon as possible. This I did.

Let me mention right here that the novel was a bit disappointing for me – though this probably has more to do with my irrationally high expectations than the quality of the book. My final disappointment was all the more bitter as the novel has an exceptionally good start which satisfies all my needs: it features multi-layered narration, jumps between past and present, a lot of delightful philosophy and an immensely likeable protagonist, Pi.

The story starts out with the narrator, a Canadian writer travelling to India in order to make his little money go a long way. There he meets an old man who tells him about the strange story of Pi Patel. When Pi was sixteen years old, he survived a shipwreck in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and then he drifted in a lifeboat for 200 days in the company of a huge Bengal tiger and a couple of other animals until he finally arrived at the shores of Mexico. The old man suggests that the writer visit Pi, now a mature man, when he gets back to Canada and ask Pi to share the whole story with him, because this is a story which has the power to turn even the most incredulous person into a believer in God.

The narrator takes the old man’s advice and contacts Pi when back in Canada. Pi agrees to recounting his story to the writer – and from this point, we mostly read Pi’s own narration, except in a couple of short chapters where the writer shares his impressions about Pi and his family with the reader.

In the first part of the novel, we jump to and fro between present-day Canada and the India of 25 years ago, and we learn about Pi’s childhood and the origins of his unique relationship to animals and religions. Pi’s father happens to be the owner of a zoo, so Pi has the chance from his early childhood to learn how to live together with animals and how to respect the ways of animals. Apart from animals, religion is the other important driving force in Pi’s life. Though he comes from a Hindu background, as a teenager Pi discovers the beauties of Christianity and the Muslim religion as well, so he becomes a young man with three equally important religions.

This part of the book is entertaining and philosophical at the same time, and I truly enjoyed Pi’s ruminations on as diverse topics as the difficulties of running a zoo, the needs of animals, the human mistake of believing animals to be anthropomorphic; the importance of belief, or the idea that man can doubt, but no good comes out of making permanent doubt a life-philosophy.

The thoroughly enjoyable first part of the book ends with Pi’s family deciding to close up the zoo and emigrate to Canada. The second part starts with the sinking of their ship. Pi is the only one to survive the tragedy, and from this moment on, the novel becomes something of a standard castaway story – though one spiced with a couple of dangerous animals, unbelievable difficulties and magical elements. I won’t divulge more details as I don’t want to spoil your pleasure.

Let me just add something regarding the end of the novel. As the story is told in retrospect, we know from the beginning that Pi managed to survive, so I think it comes as no surprise that after several days, Pi ends up in Mexico. And this is here that he first tells the story of his survival to two doubtful Japanese gentlemen – and suddenly everything is (or can be) seen in a different light. If we decide that we want to see things in this new, cruel light. Anyway, as time passes, I’m beginning to feel the end to be more and more tricky and multi-faceted. And I feel that perhaps one day I will want to re-read the novel so that I’ll be to interpret everything in at least two different ways throughout the whole novel, and not only at its end.

As a matter of fact, Life of Pi was a really good read. It was uplifting, tragic, funny, witty and dramatic at the same time, so I definitely don’t regret buying it. The only thing is that I didn’t turn into a believer simply by reading it. Of course, this is not a huge problem for me – all that happened is that now I feel that the novel promised more than it could deliver (to me). And perhaps this failure has more to do with me than with the novel itself.