Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto makes a grand claim for the power of music not only to sustain the spirit in the bleakest of times but even to transform a life.
The novel is loosely inspired by an event in December 1996 when members of a guerrilla group entered the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima, Peru, seized nearly 600 hostages and demanded the release of a number of political prisoners.
The actual location of Ann Patchett’s novel is never specified, it’s described only as the “host country”. All we gather is that it’s a small South American country whose government is in desperate need of foreign investment to prop up their failing economy.
They come up with a plan to woo a visiting Japanese industrial magnate by using the world-renowned soprano Roxane Coss as bait. If she sings at a birthday party in honour of Katsumi Hosokawa — one of her biggest fans — he could, they hope, be persuaded to build an electronics factory in their country.
Unfortunately the plans go awry because on the night of the party in the vice presidential mansion, a band of guerrillas swarm in through the air ducts. Their quarry is the president but he’s nowhere to be found. Officially the president is occupied on “matters of Israel” but he’s at home, watching his favourite TV soap opera. Far more entertaining than a room of distinguished and powerful diplomats and leaders from around the world.
Taking advantage of a bad situation the invaders decide to take all the party goers hostage and use them as bargaining tools to secure the release of their comrades held in prison. They’re pretty ineffective negotiators and not much better at controlling the hostages.
It soon becomes clear that it’s Roxanne Coss who is calling the shots. During the month-long standoff with neither government nor guerrillas giving ground, her singing keeps the atmosphere calm. Soon the guerrillas are running around to satisfy her whims just to keep her singing — one minute they are finding dental floss and herbal throat lozenges for her, the next it’s musical scores she needs.
One of the themes of Bel Canto shows how talent and strength of character can lie in unexpected places.
For the vice president this involves transforming himself into the residence’s housekeeper; cleaning up after the guerillas and their hostages.
He seemed to think that the comfort of his guests was still his responsibility. He was always serving sandwiches and picking up cups. He washed the dishes and swept and twice a day he mopped up the floors in the lavatories. With a dishtowel knotted around his waist, he took on the qualities of a charming hotel concierge … Everyone was very fond of Ruben. Everyone had completely forgotten that he was the Vice President of the country.
Later on he has a moment of epiphany in the garden, appreciating for the first time the sensation of grass beneath his feet and the scent of flowers. And he resolves there and then to be a better man, a better father and a better husband.
Change comes to the rebels too. Enchanted by the grandeur of their surroundings they begin wandering through the house sniffing hand lotion and snaffling pistachio nuts. They become so hooked on a TV drama (the same one that delights the president) much to the disgust of their commander, they begin missing drills or fitting them in around the program schedules.
Stirrings of Love
Amid the tension, love is kindled. For Mr Hosokawa, proximity to his idol is a dream come true. He has already seen her 18 times in performances around the world, often inventing business trips that will place him in the audience. Hearing her in the close, intimate setting of the besieged mansion, admiration burgeons into love.
Captivity also brings romantic fulfilment for his loyal translator Gen Watanabe, in the form of a guerrilla fighter appropriately named Carmen for whom her time in the house is the happiest point in her life.
Roxane and Mr Hosokawa, Gen and Carmen are the novel’s principals but they are surrounded by a strong cast including a Frenchman, Simon Thibault, who weeps into the stole his beloved wife leaves behind when all the women except Roxane are allowed to leave. There’s a Red Cross representative who interrupts his holiday to act as a hostage negotiator though in his suit and tie he looks more like “an earnest representative of an American religion” and a chain-smoking Russian, who makes an unexpectedly delicate declaration of love, regaling Roxane with mournful and meandering childhood stories.
What unites the 50 or so people thrust together in the mansion, is music.
Mr Hosokawa’s eleventh birthday was a life-changing experience. It was the first time he heard opera, a moment imprinted on his eyelids that marked the beginning of his love affair with music, a love that surpassed all other interests and responsibilities.
The records he cherished, the rare opportunities to see a live performance, those were the marks by which he gauged his ability to love. Not his wife, his daughters or his work. He never thought that he had somehow transferred what should have filled his daily life into opera. Instead he knew that without opera, this part of himself would have vanished forever.
In the vice presidential music a young priest undergoes a similar experience when he hears opera sung live for the first time.
It was different in ways he could never have imagined, as if the voice were something that could be seen. Certainly it could be felt … It trembled inside the folds of his cassock, brushed against the skin of his cheeks. Never had he thought, never once, that such a woman existed, one who stood so close to God that God’s own voice poured from her. How far she must have gone inside herself to call up that voice. It was as if the voice came from the center part of the earth and by the sheer effort and diligence of her will she had pulled it up through the dirt and rock and through the floorboards of the house, up into her feet, where it pulled through her, reaching, lifting, warmed by her, and then out of the white lily of her throat and straight to God in heaven. It was a miracle and he wept for the gift of bearing witness.
For her part Roxane comes to appreciate the true power of the music that has been her life’s work, causing her to sing ”as if she was saving the life of every person in the room.” Patchett’s idea of the power of music does strain too far however when Roxane takes an interest in one of the rebels she discovers is a musical prodigy, able to repeat perfectly the notes and lines that she sings. As if her readers don’t really understand that this talent could be his escape route from poverty, Patchett makes the General her mouthpiece:
It makes you wonder, All the brilliant things we might have done with our lives if only we suspected we knew how.
Such a cod piece of philosophy strikes a really duff note in an otherwise absorbing and finely tuned novel about the the various ways in which human connections can be forged, even in the most unlikely of circumstances and situations.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett: Footnotes
Ann Patchett’s first published work was a story she wrote before she graduated from college, which appeared in The Paris Review. For nine years, she worked at Seventeen magazine, where she wrote primarily non-fiction. Her first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars, was published in 1992. She has since written a further six novels, the latest of which The Dutch House is reviewed here on the blog.
Bel Canto, her fourth novel was published in the UK by Fourth Estate in 2001, going on to win the Orange Prize for Fiction the following year.
Her most recent book is a collection of essays published as These Precious Days.
This review was published at Bookertalk.com in 2017. This is an updated version with formatting changes to improve readability and upgrade to the WordPress block editor platform. It is re-published in support of #throwbackthursday hosted by Davida @ The Chocolate Lady’s Book Review Blog.