This mixed-bag of three stories and a novella first appeared in 1993, nine years before its Canadian author’s Booker Prize winner, Life of Pi.
The stories are comparatively weak. “Manners of Dying” contains alternative versions of the letter a prison warden must send to the mother of a young convict over whose execution he presides. A few of the several scenarios (describing the prisoner’s reaction to his imminent death) are harshly moving, but the story as a whole is distinctly gimmicky. In another, an unnamed narrator re-creates “The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton.” The chamber piece so identified memorializes the Vietnam War with awkward intensity, in “a mix of perfect beauty and cathartic error.” Martel’s development of the premise is disappointingly banal. “The Via Aeterna Mirror Company: Mirrors to Last till Kingdom Come” describes, in a mixture of prose and verse, its narrator’s slow comprehension of his grandmother’s long widowhood and stoical old age, the facts of which are “stored” in a marvelous machine that “runs on” her memories. It’s a thin fantasy, filled with redundant padding, that reads like an abandoned Ray Bradbury effort. Then there’s the title novella, set in 1986, about a college student’s slow dying from AIDS (contracted during an emergency blood transfusion), as described by the friend who endures the ordeal with him, ceaselessly visiting and offering support, concocting an ongoing story about an imaginary Finnish family: “a story in eighty-six episodes, each echoing one event from one year of the unfolding century.” As his friend’s “contributions” remain hopeful and encouraging, the patient’s own tales grow increasingly despairing and apocalyptic: the surrounding story’s progression is precise, impressively imagined, and immensely moving.
Overall, a disappointment. “The Facts,” though, represents the best reason we’ve been given yet to keep reading Martel.