What I’m Reading: Bel Canto

Another book for my book club at work, this one a beautifully written work from 2001 titled Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett. Bel Canto is a style of opera from the late 18th to early 19th century characterized by flowery, virtuosic vocal performances. I think the title is the key to understanding what Patchett is doing here, for I believe what she’s done is write an opera in novel form. But I’ll discuss that in a moment. First let me summarize the plot.

Mr. Hosokawa is the head of a Japanese industrial conglomerate who has been invited for his birthday to an unnamed but impoverished Latin American country. There is a rumor that Mr. Hosokawa is considering opening a factory in the country, and the country’s government has gone to considerable expense to hire Mr. Hosokawa’s favorite opera singer, Roxane Coss, for a private performance at the vice-presidential mansion. In fact, Mr. Hosokawa has no intention of opening a factory there, but he accepts the invitation anyway just so he can see Roxane perform.

After Roxane finishes singing, a terrorist group invades the mansion, taking all the dignitaries hostage. The terrorists hoped to capture the country’s president, who had decided at the last minute not to come (the time conflicted with an important episode of his favorite soap opera). As he’s not there, they keep everybody else as bargaining chips, issuing a list of demands to the country’s government. Soon the terrorists have acquiesced to releasing the domestic workers, children, and all the women except Roxane Coss, who is so famous that the government will surely cut a deal to win her release.

But the government does not cut a deal, and the standoff lasts for months, with the terrorists and hostages living in the vice-presidential mansion. The terrorist group consist of three generals and a number of teen-agers, two of whom turn out to be young women. At first, discipline is tight, but as the days go on with no end in sight, they permit the hostages more and more freedom. Roxane Coss is allowed to practice her singing every morning, a priest named Father Arguedas hears confessions and holds masses, and the interpreter Gen, who speaks numerous languages, is kept busy translating for all the guests. A Red Cross representative named Joachim Messner brings food every day and takes the Generals’ demands back outside.

Eventually, friendships develop among the hostages, and even between the hostages and terrorists. Roxane discovers that one of the teenage boys in the terrorist group has a beautiful voice and a talent for singing, and begins teaching him to sing opera. One of the terrorist girls named Carmen asks Gen to help her learn to read and write Spanish so she will no longer be illiterate, and after a while he notices how pretty she is. Simon Thibault, the French ambassador to the country, takes the ingredients that Messner brings and cooks elaborate meals for everybody. Ruben, the vice-president, cleans up and makes sure everyone is comfortable. And love affairs start between unlikely partners.

This is the part I believe is meant to be operatic. At first, the story seems it will be serious, but as it develops, it becomes lush and romantic. All the implausible pairings, all the heightened emotion, all these humorous and tragic characters, and everything playing out on the single set of the living room in the vice president’s house…I believe Patchett is creating her own sort of opera, in prose.

It’s hard for me not to recommend this to practically every adult reader. Bel Canto has such lively characters and so much humor and passion, written in an impeccable and slightly ironic style, that it’s hard to imagine a lover of literature who wouldn’t enjoy it.

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