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Bel Canto Paperback – August 2, 2005
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From the Back Cover
Somewhere in South America, at the home of the country's vice president, a lavish birthday party is being held in honor of the powerful businessman Mr. Hosokawa. Roxanne Coss, opera's most revered soprano, has mesmerized the international guests with her singing. It is a perfect evening -- until a band of gunwielding terrorists takes the entire party hostage. But what begins as a panicked, life-threatening scenario slowly evolves into something quite different, a moment of great beauty, as terrorists and hostages forge unexpected bonds and people from different continents become compatriots, intimate friends, and lovers.
About the Author
Ann Patchett is the author of six novels and three books of nonfiction. She has won many prizes, including Britain's Orange Prize, the PEN/Faulkner Prize, and the Book Sense Book of the Year. Her work has been translated into more than thirty languages. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where she is the co-owner of Parnassus Books.
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In this pitiful attempt at a novel, a famous opera diva is detained in a South American terrorist hostage-taking event, along with fifty seven men, or rather fifty five men and two girls unsuccessfully concealing their sexual identities, without any negative consequence whatsoever (the US military, where rape of women soldiers is horribly commonplace, would very much like to know how it's done: Patchett apparently does not understand the question, taking it for granted that the threat of punishment slone is sufficient to control the behavior of the large group of untaught adolescent male soldiers).
The diva is loved passionately by every man there excepting one, without there being a single detail to explain the phenom--Patchett takes great care to depict her as perfectly ordinary (except small, and talented). The diva in turn takes one of the men as a lover, a man with a very nice wife and very nice children, without inciting any reaction in all her other suitors. There is no suggestion, even in the afterword, that his or her betrayal of his family, has any consequence at all.
In fact, there are no consequences for anyone in this novel, the classic form of which has been since its inception the portrayal of the consequences of decisions over time. These are all very nice, sinless people, who create a perfect society in the compound, thanks to the beneficial (invisible!) effect of opera--or let us say, of Art. Not that Patchett betrays any knowledge of opera beyond what anyone could get on the first google result page. In fact, one has to suspect, since another book of Patchett's takes a woman listening to the radio on a car trip from California to Kentucky, during the sixties, during the Vietnam War, without ever mentioning Big Brother and the Holding Company, or Jimmy Hendrix, or Bob Dylan, ot Jefferson Airplane, or Gracie Slick, or any song, or any snatch of a song, an omission that surely must have its origin in Patchett's being tone and culture deaf. Otherwise it's impossible, utterly impossible, to do. Patchett's use of opera in this novel is like that. Empty of content. We're supposed to think it's full of meaning because the characters keep saying it's full of meaning. Actually, content-wise, it's full of something else.
It's not just the diva. Everyone who matters in the compound was born perfect; all the favored are talented, or beautiful, or possess great professional skills, all without any work on their part beyond what counts as fun, and all the rest adore them, to their great amusement. This is so like Patchett's heroine in Patron Saint of Liars, who is effortlessly beautiful that every man she meets falls for her, always--a favorite fantasy of a certain kind of very stupid woman.) There is a priest in Bel Canto, for example, who insisted on staying a hostage after the other vulnerable were so kindly dismissed by the Generals. By the end of the book he has effortlessly, simply by making the sacraments available, brought every single person in the compound into a state of grace. Oh, their actual continuing sins are overlooked, of course, because beautiful people cannot commit sins, that's Ann's favorite secondary theme, no matter what immorality they commit in the way of infidelity. The book is fairly brimming with automatic greatness in all areas. There is a boy who has without a teacher become a very great singer. Another boy is a born chess whiz. A new accompanist emerges, never previously recognized, apparently self-taught, to replace the diva's old dead one (who dies from diabetes over fifty or sixty boring pages, with no consequence as per usual). The girl soldier, Carmen, is conveniently blessed with the skill of invisibility. The diva and her lover are enamored even though they do not share a language. Nothing must be work, in Patchett's worlds.
Because all the people in Patchett's world are perfect, we are forced to read page after page of their childhood experiences, and sexual histories, and their favorite recipes, for that South American favorite, for example, the guinea pig, which she renders as cabayo, surely her un-researched take on the word pronounced the same and rendered caballo, which means, of course, horse. She didn't bother to get it right.
Given the plot, the book would have to be included in the political novels section of the Dewey Decimal, but that would be truly scandalous. You have never encountered such ignorance of politics, nor is Patchett being ironic. Her Generals do not know what the president of their country looks like, and we are expected to accept that as a plausible fact, although they come to kidnap him. That's because all their television sets are broken, where they come from (a condition you will not find in the actual world, if you are looking. All the television sets work, when nothing else does, even in the jungle and the desert; such is the magic of satellite. But Patchett is not looking, nor apparently have her readers.) These generals have no demands beyond vague requests to release family members from prison. They are not angry--they are very nice, reasonable, chess-playing men whom everyone knows, about twenty pages into the boredom, will never harm the hostages, not really. There is no real oppression in their country, from the depth of their statements. One would be forced to contrast this non-effort from Patchett with, for example (out of so very many excellent alternatives), the political fiction of Nadine Gordimer through whose writing about the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and her meticulously researched and deeply felt characters, one may learn as if one were present and grieving it, of the fatal, tragic weaknesses of the ANC.
If only we could give no stars. Any enthusiasm for this monstrosity should cause you to look carefully at the speaker. They are ripe to fall prey to a Western Union scam.
Here's the setup: An extremely important Japanese businessman, the chairman of japan's largest electronics firm, is lured to attend a 'birthday party' in his honor at the house of the Vice-President of a South American nation, obviously Peru. The President is expected to attend, but won't. The politicians of the nation are hoping to entice the Japanese to invest in their industrial development, which they won't. The chairman, Hosokawa-sama, accepts the invitation solely because the Diva, Roxanne Coss, will be paid a small fortune to sing at the party. The party will be a polyglot assemblage of high-power diplomatic and economic Egos, from Russia, France, Spain, Japan, and elsewhere, plus a sudden inrush of Quechua-speaking Revolutionaries -- the novel calls them 'terrorists' but I reject that label, unless we can also label John Hancock and Samuel Adams terrorists -- intending to kidnap the President and hold him hostage to exchange for other revolutionaries now imprisoned. Since the President isn't in place, the Revolutionaries, obviously based on Peru's 'Sendero Luminoso', improvise. They take the whole party crowd hostage. The captivity will drag on for nearly five months, and that's all of the plot I intend to reveal.
Patchett focuses her character development on a select few of the hostages and their captors: Hosokawa, his interpreter Gen, Roxanne Coss, a priest, the host Vice-President, a French diplomat among the former; a young woman revolutionary named Carmen, two young male revolutionaries named Ishmael and Cesar, and one 'general' among the captors, a man of the most profound and sincere dedication to the cause of helping the Poor among his people. There's one outsider in the cast, a Swiss Red Cross negotiator named Messner, the only person allowed to enter or exit the site of the captivity.
Here's where Patchett works her way on us: each of the highlighted characters, on both sides, is a decent human being, a sympathetic person, a "good" person of heart and mind, with whose eventual rescue or escape we become concerned. Likewise, the hostages and the revolutionaries develop respect and even affection for each other. In the final four (4!) pages of the story, when the government commandos burst into the house, some of the hostages will attempt desperately to save at least the noblest of their captors.
"Bel Canto" is far better than a mere melodrama. Better written and more artfully constructed. Too artfully, it may be. When I finished it, I have to admit that I felt horribly manipulated. Jerked around. Set up for hurt! Bel Canto is a species of emotional pornography -- not sexual, please understand -- in which the author excites our feelings almost pruriently. What I painfully suspect is that Patchett has done it to us for the shallowest of motives, mere literary flair. When it's all said and done, I strongly doubt that the author really had any interest in Peru or its peoples, or in the real-life thoughts and behaviors of her guerrilla good guys, or in her polyglot hero Gen Watanabe. That's why Gen remains an implausibly wooden fellow; his creator doesn't believe in him.
I enjoyed this book most of the way through it, though I foresaw where it would drag me. I didn't really react hostilely until the ending, but then I felt 'seduced and abandoned'. This is the second novel of Ann Patchett's that I've read -- the first was "Taft" -- and in both cases I've been alienated by her insincerity in service to marketable prose.
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