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Thursday, November 7, 2013

'Bel Canto' by Ann Patchett

From the BLURB:

The poignant – and at times very funny – new novel from the author of ‘The Magician’s Assistant’, shortlisted for the Orange Prize.

Latin terrorists storm an international gathering hosted by an underprivileged country to promote foreign interest and trade, only to find that their intended target, the President, has stayed home to watch his favourite soap opera on TV. Among the hostages are a world class opera singer and her biggest fan, a Japanese tycoon who has been persuaded to attend the party on the understanding that she will perform half a dozen arias after dinner.

The tycoon’s engaging and sympathetic translator plays a vital role in the subsequent relationships between so many different nationalities closeted together, interpreting not only the terrorists’ negotiations but also the language of love between lovers who cannot understand what the other is saying.

Ultimately, it is the terrorist strike that does more to promote foreign relations than anyone could have hoped to achieve with the party.

Somewhere in South America, at the home of the country’s vice president, a lavish birthday party is being held in honor of Mr. Hosokawa. Delegates and businessmen from various countries have all gathered together for the Japanese businessman’s fifty-third birthday in the hopes that he will consider expanding his business empire to this struggling country. Part of Mr. Hosokoawa’s enticement is the presence of infamous American opera singer, Roxane Coss, at his party – she is his favourite singer. 

Just as Ms Coss’s performance comes to a chest-swelling, hand-clapping end, the lights cut out and bodies storm the manor house. 

Terrorists come from the air vents; dozens of men fill the room, herding the guests and demanding they hand over the president. But the president did not attend this party, he stayed home. 

When their plans are foiled, the terrorists are forced to compromise. They release the women, children and the infirm. But they keep the wealthiest businessmen, the vice president, one young priest who refuses to leave and assorted overseas delegates. And they keep Roxane Coss. 

As hours leak into days leak into weeks and the bullhorns of waiting military outside the manor walls eventually dull, the hostages’ imprisonment takes on routine and even comfort. The Generals and their child-soldier terrorists likewise fall into habit and normality with the kidnapped.

In the midst of this ordeal there is Katsumi Hosokawa, who feels the terrible burden of guilt, for it was his party that set this plan in motion. Roxane Coss starts practicing again, offering hostages and kidnappers alike a very privileged, almost sacred, connection to a voice that is surely a gift from god. Gen Watanabe should have been released with the manor’s workers – he is merely an employee of Mr Hosokawa’s, his translator – but with so many displaced people, many of them not even speaking the language of this host country, Gen becomes intricate to everyone’s lives. 

Bel Canto’ was the 2001 novel by Ann Patchett, which won the Orange Prize for Fiction and PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

I purchased my copy of ‘Bel Canto’ in 2011, the year that Patchett’s ‘State of Wonder’ came out and everyone was simply raving about that book and this author I wasn’t terribly familiar with. But I wasn’t moved by the ‘State of Wonder’ blurb, was in fact much more intrigued by her big breakthrough novel, ‘Bel Canto’ and that premise. So I bought the book, lopped it onto my TBR pile and for the last few years considered pulling it out and having a read. What compelled me to do that a few days ago, after I've had the thing waiting for me since 2011, I do not know. But now I have read it, recognise the magnificence of this beguiling little book and am now sworn to reading everything Patchett has ever written.

While I was in the thick of this book I kept marvelling at Patchett’s mind that could come up with such a lavishly plausible premise. I love the puff which appears on the front cover of my copy, from Christina Konig; “It is that rarity – a literary novel you simply can’t put down.” And I agree wholeheartedly – the plot of a businessman’s birthday party being invaded by terrorists which leads to a huge diplomatic kidnapping crisis is simply divine. So I was only a little bit deflated when, after reading, I did some Wikipediaing and found that Patchett was inspired by the real-life Japanese embassy hostage crisis of 1996. That incident occurred in Peru, and was an Emperor’s 63rd birthday party that provided the opportunity for a kidnapping, which lasted 126 days. I admit, while I was reading ‘Bel Canto’ I kept marvelling at this intricate, slightly absurd but still somehow plausible premise trigger and was just a little bit miffed that it didn’t come entirely from Patchett’s imagination. 

But what is simply superb is Patchett’s telling of this over-the-top, tightly coiled story with a thread of music running throughout. Something that struck me in her telling is how patient Patchett is. She throws readers into the thick of action very early on, and then drags us behind these foiled terrorists for pages and pages as they think of a compromise when their plan to kidnap only the president meets a roadblock. Patchett beautifully communicates back-stories and gives us heroes to hope make it to the end, as she drags out the hours of initial confusion after the terrorists’ arrival. 

For the most part the separation of hostages was civil. No two had to be pried apart with a gun. When they knew their time was really up the men and the women separated, as if a complicated dancing reel were about to begin and soon they would join and split and change, passing their partners off only to receive them back into their arms again.

Though narrated by an omniscient third party, key players emerge in the hours after the kidnapping; Mr. Hosokawa, his translator Gen and the woman bought to entertain at his party, Roxane Coss. Later, one of the young terrorists also emerges as a hero of the story – but that’s better left as a surprise.

I especially loved Gen as a character who is forced to drift into everyone’s orbit for his being like their Tower of Babel – the only one with a head full of languages to help the hostages communicate with one another, the kidnappers with their kidnapped charges and the Generals behind this terrorism movement with the outside world. 

Roxane looked back at him and smiled a little. “Poor Gen, you’re always in the middle of everything. Anyone who has a secret has to take it through you.” 

The premise sounds very serious and Patchett does use ‘Bel Canto’ to touch on political and socio-economic issues with a deft touch. But there’s a lot of absurdity in this book to make you smile. It’s in the vice president who becomes his own house-keeper, desperate to keep his guests/fellow-hostages in comfort while they stay in his residence. The little child terrorist who is obsessed with watching a weekly telenovela, and the Russian diplomat who thinks himself in passionate love with Roxane Coss after being in such close-proximity to her and her voice. Patchett masterfully juxtaposes hilarity and high-stakes, sadness and absurdity and all while moving these vastly different characters around the tight space of a manor house in the middle of some unknown poor country. It’s easy to see why this book is such a favourite for so many people, and heralded Patchett as a writer-to-watch. 

Though a lot of the book is Patchett communicating the mundane routines of kidnapping, there comes a point when readers can literally feel her start coiling the plot tighter and tighter until the inevitable end . . . It’s quick and vicious, an ending to take your breath away for the suddenness you always knew had to come.

I simply adored this book, and didn’t want my reading of it to end. Is it lame to say I was a hostage to Patchett’s book? I've already gone out and bought ‘State of Wonder’ (though I can’t believe it when people tell me that book is even better than ‘Bel Canto’ – how is that humanly possible?!) and you better believe I’ll be reading everything and anything Patchett has written/writes from here on in.


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