Book Title: Bel Canto
Author: Ann Patchett
Original Publication Date: 2001
Edition Read: Harper Perennial (2005) paperback
Total Pages: 318
Reason Read: My sister-in-law placed it in my hands
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
“There had been no girls like Carmen at university. There had never been a girl like Carmen. What a sense of humor one would need to believe that the woman you love is not in Tokyo or Paris or New York or Athens. The woman you love is a girl who dresses as a boy and she lives in a village in a jungle, the name of which you are not allowed to know, not that knowing the name would be particularly helpful in trying to find it. The woman you love puts her gun beside a blue gravy boat at night so that you can teach her to read. She came into your life through an air conditioning vent and how she will leave is the question that keeps you awake in the few free moments you have to sleep.” ~ pg. 203
Over the holidays, my sister-in-law handed this book to me and asked that I read it so she would have someone to discuss it with. Her mother had given it to her and then, by the time she got around to reading it, her mother didn’t recall enough details to make the discussion any fun. I first encountered Ann Patchett through her novel written after this one, “Run.” I very much enjoyed that story of people from vastly different walks of life thrown together by fate, veiled as unhappy circumstances. When I described the plot of “Run,” my sister-in-law told me that I would find a very similar theme in “Bel Canto.” And I most certainly did.
Inspired by the actual Japanese Embassy Residence taking in Lima, Peru by a small group of terrorists in 1996, “Bel Canto” tells the story of a group of dignitaries and powerful industry heads gathered for a birthday party in a presumed South American country hosted at the Vice President’s home and how the party is crashed by a small group of national terrorists seeking to swap the President for their agenda. The only problem is that the President is not in attendance because he begged off so as not to miss must-see-TV in a climatic episode of a popular soap opera broadcast.
Now the terrorists are stuck with hundreds of hostages, none of whom wield the power their original target did. They release most of them, holding on to the wealthiest and most prominent. This includes the head of a powerful Japanese corporation whose birthday was being celebrated, with the hopes that he would then build a plant in their country. It also includes a magnificent American opera soprano hired to perform specifically to lure the Japanese businessman to attend because he is her biggest fan. The Japanese businessman’s personal translator is the character the book filters most everything through since multiple countries are represented amongst the hostages and the translator is the only one who can communicate with everyone.
I thought that this was a very clever way to tell the story and also to parallel the theme of barriers. The book is all about relationships – people from opposite backgrounds, cultures and beliefs thrown together happenstance for a period of over four months – and how we find compassion, love and respect for mankind when the influences of the rest of the world are stripped away.
The hostages are initially fearful for their lives and threatened by their captors. But as time drags on, and it becomes apparent that they are stuck in this house for the long haul, they begin to form relationships. They get to know each other. They cross lines between captor and captive. They play games together. They entertain for each other. They prepare meals together. They do favors for each other. And through all of this, they learn to care for each other. They live in an alternate reality. It is kind of like LOST – the island life and the rest of the world. They dream of life later when they can take this young terrorist under their wing or run away and continue a romantic life with this fellow hostage, despite the family back home waiting for them. Some of them know the only way to keep having the wondrous life that they have in captivity is if the rest of the world goes away and they stay in this situation forever.
From Page 13 of the book, we are told point blank that “it was the unspoken belief of everyone who was familiar with this organization and with the host country that they were all as good as dead, when in fact it was the terrorists who would not survive the ordeal.” At first, this was comforting for me to know. It was scary having them barge in on these perfectly nice folks and the wondrous opera singer. I liked knowing that these characters, for all of the suffering they were going through, would be OK. I continued reading on very relaxed and gave myself over to the details of the characters. It wouldn’t hurt to get to know them because I knew they would all be safe in the end.
The problem – the dirty trick if you will – is that Patchett lured us right in to caring very much for all of the terrorists too. Slowly – little by little – the bad guys, and girls, are humanized and just as for the hostages in the story, the line for the reader blurs to the point of not remembering that they are in fact, terrorists. I found myself pushing that little sentence from unlucky Page 13 out of my head the further and further along I went. Surely not ALL of the terrorists would perish? Not sweet Carmen, the lovely young girl terrorist who thirsted for language and learning and found true lovers’ love? Not the talented Cesar, the awkward young terrorist boy who received vocal training from the renowned opera singer herself? Not General Benjamin, the head terrorist stricken with shingles and trying to find a way to bring good to his country and go back to a life of teaching?
But shockingly, this story does have a “happier ever after” ending. The problem is, it isn’t the one the reader is looking for, expecting or even wants. No. I liked living within the walls with the terrorists and hostages, playing house and breaking down barriers while the rest of the world plotted out a rescue plan. I was angry that Patchett spent so much time telling me two very beautiful love stories that then kept me from being able to accept the one she provides with a bow on it at the end.
I loved her writing, the ease of adapting to each character and the flaws they brought to the table, and the beauty of opera that she wove throughout what would surely have just been a dirty, ugly, tedious tale to tell. I even enjoyed the ending – its pace matched the way such things would go down, and it gave poignant treatment to certain characters. I hated her epilogue. Hated it. But I still went back as soon as I was finished and started to read it all over again – to see the subtle details I missed about the characters I loved when she first introduced them to me.