In 2002, this book won both the PEN/Faulkner award for literature in the United States, and the Orange Prize for fiction in Britain. It has received excellent reviews. But even after discussing it with friends who liked it, there remains something about the novel that left me feeling less than enthusiastic. Is it just me?
Patchett says she got the idea for the story from reports of the siege of the residence of the Japanese Ambassador in Lima, Peru, in 1996. In Bel Canto, a group of revolutionaries in an unnamed Latin American country invade a very multinational party at the Vice President’s residence with the intention of kidnapping the President. But he is at home watching a soap opera, so the invaders take the party guests hostage instead. Some are subsequently let go, but they keep anyone of importance, including the Japanese business man, Katsumi Hosokawa for whom the party was given, and the famous American soprano Roxane Coss, who has been hired to sing for the guests. From here, Patchett has imagined what life might be like for hostages and captors alike during a three month siege. She outlines the relationships that develop in what paradoxically comes to seem an idyllic time. And because of the music they get to hear, everyone ‘forgot that they badly wanted to be someplace else’.
I’m not giving anything away if I tell you that all the revolutionaries – or terrorists as they are called here – die at the end, because Patchett tells the reader this herself on page 13: ‘in fact it was the terrorists who would not survive the ordeal’ (as was the case in the Lima siege). She clearly intends that the story not be read as a thriller driven by suspense. Instead, it is about the possibility of happiness in a physically enclosed and time-bound space. This in turn makes the characterisation important. Gen Watanabe, Mr Hosokawa’s translator, is the central character, because he is the only one that can speak to and for all of the others. There are several hostages, a few of the terrorists, a priest and a Red Cross negotiator who are important to the story; all are presented sympathetically. But the rather idealised relationships that develop between the hostages and their captors are destined to end in disaster, giving an elegiac quality to the novel. There are many gentle and amusing moments, but those that relate to hostage/captor interactions are all tinged with this knowledge.
The power of music to sooth and transform is central to the story. Once Roxane Coss begins her daily singing practice, everything changes; it is she who is in charge, even though the terrorist still have the guns. This is a nice idea, but in my view, totally unrealistic. Perhaps I’m wrong to even think about reality in relation to the novel. One friend suggested the story itself could be seen as operatic, with various of the characters pairing off to (metaphorically) sing their duets of love and loss against a background of stirring times. And a TV soap opera – the one the President had stayed home to watch – is an ongoing motif in the story. But reading about the effects on people of the music, I couldn’t get out of my mind the observation in Margaret Atwood’s book The Blind Assassin, about those who thought that culture made people better. ‘They hadn’t yet seen Hitler at the opera house’.
If you see the story as a sort of opera, with little place for realism, there is no place for any assessment of the politics of the story, such as whether the terrorists have any justification for their act of hostage taking, or whether the government of the unnamed country has the right summarily to execute them (as also happened in Lima). Perhaps I feel uncomfortable with this. But perhaps Patchett is being much cleverer than this; after all it is the refusal to face reality – the communal forgetting that this is a hostage situation – that brings about disaster.
Even after a lot of thought, I can’t resolve my feelings about this book. This is probably a good reason to read it.
Some time ago I read her much praised Taft (2003) and didn’t like it. Perhaps I just don’t get Ann Patchett.
You can read more about her and her books here.