No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, October 09, 2006

#87: Bel Canto -- Anne Patchett

Bel Canto explores two improbable romances and an unlikely state of bliss. In an unnamed South American republic, a world-famous soprano sings at the birthday party of a wealthy Japanese industrialist, hosted by the Vice-President of the country. (The President has cried off: it's the evening for his favourite soap opera.) Suddenly the lights go out -- that's the opening of the novel. And when they come on again, the party guests discover that they are being held hostage by a terrorist group. Negotiations begin almost immediately, and all the women, save Roxane the soprano, are freed within hours: but somehow the terrorists are not given what they demand, not least because their demands, conveyed by loudspeaker and telephone, change almost daily. Their sole face-to-face contact with the world outside is via Messner, a Swiss Red Cross worker who's holidaying in the country, and Messner's an enigma to the end.

In part, I suppose, it's about Stockholm syndrome -- the sympathy and respect that hostages may begin to feel for their captors. Or maybe, in this instance, it's simply that the terrorists (many of them teenaged, two of them female, and the majority so poor that they've never seen a working television) aren't actually all that terrifying. At any rate, a curious detente ensues, as the southern hemisphere's summer advances and the spring rains stop. There are random acts of kindness on both sides: Gen, Mr Hosokowa's translator, teaches English to a young woman; Roxane sings her scales, and her arias, for an audience more avid than she'd ever expected; there are football games, and talk of what will happen afterwards. By the end of the siege, even the victim of the most violent act is joking about it. And everyone in the Vice-President's house has revealed some soft underbelly, some dimension of humanity, that those around him (or her) could not have suspected. General Benjamin, the terrorist leader, suffers from shingles; the French ambassador sleeps with his wife's shawl in his arms; Cesar longs for singing lessons, afterwards.

Then the siege ends, and we begin to see the picture from the outside -- not the cosy claustrophobia of a fine house filled with 'victims' and 'oppressors' who are rich or poor, and who've discovered how small (how large) their differences are, but the way that the press has reported the situation, the hysteria whipped up by the President (does he feel guilty for watching his favourite television programme?), the negotiations attempted by Messner.

The last few pages of the book didn't ring quite true to me at first, but I'm beginning to view them in a different light: a sense of people turning to their companions in adversity, because there is no one else who can understand what it was like when their lives changes.

Patchett's writing is clear, crisp, understated: she does not waste her observations. There's a sense of, not exactly magic, but connection, that I first noticed in The Magician's Assistant (and found lacking in A Patchwork Planet). Everything happens for a reason, and with hindsight the plot seems inevitable.

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