Sunday, January 2, 2011

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

My writer friend lent me this book saying ‘I can’t believe I haven’t lent you this one yet. It’s possibly one of my all-time favourite books’. Coming from her, this was a big claim, so I was intrigued and little bit excited. Another reason I looked forward to reading this book was that I had only just finished The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett about two weeks previously, and I had enjoyed it (I will write a review for it soon...promise).

Bel Canto story is set in a fictional country, somewhere in South America where there is a jungle, where Spanish is the common language and where the President is an ethnically Japanese man by the name of Masuda (I think it's a thinly veiled Peru). The setting is the residence of the Vice-President Ruben Inglesias, where a dinner is held for Mr Hosokawa, the founder and chairman of Nansei, the largest electronics corporation in Japan. An American opera singer, Roxane Cross—the most renowned opera singer in the world—has been invited to sing at the dinner, specifically to lure Mr Hosokawa from Japan for he is a devoted fan of her work.

The lavish dinner is interrupted by terrorists who take the entire party hostage, mistakenly thinking that President Masuda would be there. When they realise their bad luck (he stayed at home to watch his favourite soap opera) they fail to come up with a counter plan. Lacking the violent aggression of other terrorist groups, this band inadvertently allows the situation to develop into a home away from home for both themselves and the hostages. The situation lasts for over four months, during which time relationships develop. After most of the staff members, women and children are released a couple of days into the siege, the only remaining women are two terrorists and Rozanne.

This is a love story, a story of love. The strange and beautiful situation that hostages and captors find themselves in enables them to forget that what they are experiencing can only ever end in disaster. In forgetting this, they open themselves up to life and love as they probably never would ‘outside’, in their ordinary lives. No one tries to escape. No one wants to. ‘Bel Canto’ means beautiful singing. It is Roxane’s beautiful singing, and eventually the young terrorist Cesar’s as well, that brings together the unlikely crowd of hostages, most of whom are wealthy, important political or public figures, and terrorists, mostly uneducated youths from the jungle, led by idealistic but thoughtless generals.

It is not only the music that brings this group of people together. Coming from different countries, they cannot communicate with each other. Gen, Mr Hosokawa’s interpreter becomes the most important person in the whole scenario. He is the consummate professional interpreter—like a machine he lets most conversations barely lick the surface of his mind, let alone touch his emotions. But he is now in a situation like no other interpreting job he had before, for his life is at stake, as is his employer’s for whom he has a deep respect. Gen’s sense of diplomacy, his calm thoughtfulness and his brilliant mind makes him an excellent conduit for everything from requests from the terrorists to the Red Cross, to love declarations for Roxane from long-winded Russians.

I was actually a little bit bored for the first part of the book. The pace was a touch too slow for my liking and I found myself only getting through about 10 pages before putting it down. I can’t be sure when in the story it was, but about halfway through, something pulled me in and I started to see what my friend was raving about. I finished this book last night and it has stayed in my mind. It is written in a most beautiful way. Each character is endearing and the unlikely bonds they forge are amusing and heartbreaking at the same time. The following paragraph captures this.

Mr Hosokawa and Roxane were standing at the sink. It was odd the way they never spoke and yet always seemed to be engaged in a conversation. Ignacio, Guadalupe, and Humberto were at the breakfast table cleaning guns, a puzzle of disconnected metal spreading out on newspapers before them as they rubbed oil into each part. Thibault sat at the table with them reading cookbooks.

Thibault is a French hostage who wears his wife’s scarf around his neck and misses her openly and unashamedly. He has taken responsibility for the cooking. Patchett manages to bring each character to life with warmth. Unlike The Patron Saint of Liars, whose initial narrator I ended up hating, I liked every character in this story. Even Beatriz, the sullen teenage terrorist who at first appeared as though she would, in a fit of temper, pull the trigger at the slightest provocation, had endeared herself to me by the end.

I was very surprised by the epilogue and a little confused about it. I tried to understand it in the big scheme of things, but had a bit of difficulty. Perhaps a different epilogue would have suited, or no epilogue at all.

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