Sunday 24 January 2010

Beautiful Singing

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett is another book from the 'Orange Prize' winners list (2002). I have come to the conclusion that slow books tend to have to be read slowly. It has taken me several weeks to read this book and when I finally closed it last night I had tears in my eyes.

I like this front cover image as this captures exactly the house where I imagined the story taking place; colonial, elegant and it's affluence in stark contrast to the poverty and deprivation surrounding it. A group of foreign dignitaries and businessmen are gathered in an unnamed central/south american country at a party for Mr Hosokawa, a Japanese businessman whom the government hopes to entice to invest. Mr Hosokawa however never had any intention of investing and has been tempted to attend only by the presence at the party of Roxane Coss, a famous opera singer. As the book opens she is ending her performance for the guests, and the lights go out, and when they come back on the party guests find themselves taken hostage by a group of terrorists, who themselves were merely hoping to kidnap the president. The president however had made his excuses earlier in the evening, or rather they had been made on his behalf, by aides who don't want it generally known that the president would rather watch his favourite soap opera than attend a state function. So the terrorists are left with something of a quandary, their intended target is absent, their plan, right from the start, has gone wrong. I guess the reader should anticipate right from the start that this is not going to end well for them. Within hours they are surrounded by government soldiers and a stalemate is established. The terrorists issue demands, that get more outrageous as time passes, and the government just refuses to negotiate. They release all the women and children, excepting Roxane, who one of the generals recognise as being important and therefore perhaps having more influence. Their needs are provided for by Messner, a Red Cross negotiator who happened to be on holiday locally, and who becomes their only contact with the outside world.

The situation quickly becomes both totally surreal and yet totally normal. The only initial drama is provided by the death of Roxane's accompanist, who is diabetic and falls quickly into a coma without his medication, and the striking of the vice-president Ruben Iglesias by one of the generals, who's healing wound leaves the only outward scar from the entire incident. The rather disparate group of hostages are held together by Gen, who is Mr Hosokawa's translator, and who becomes the official translator for the entire group, including the terrorists, and he also becomes, in my view, the book's central character. And yet you learn very little about him, because most of the words he speaks are for other people. But it is Roxane who saves them really. It is her music that entrances every person in the story. The party guests were already a little in love with the woman who can create such beauty with her voice, and the terrorists waiting in the ventilation ducts whilst she sings, waiting for their moment to attack, cannot help but be draw under her spell. And then they make the worst of their many mistakes. The priest, Father Arguedas, gets permission to phone his friend who can provide her with music so that she can practice her singing. In this quote the friend has asked if she will speak to him, just to hear the sound of her voice:

"He was paralysed by the sound of her voice, the music of speaking, the rhythmic loops of the names that passed through her lips, into the phone, and then into Miguel's ear some two miles away. The priest knew then for sure that he would survive this. That there would come a day when he would sit at Miguel's kitchen table in his small apartment cluttered with music and they would shamelessly recount the pleasure of this exact moment. He would have to live if only to have that cup of coffee with his friend. And while they would remember, try to place in order the names that she spoke, Father Arguedas would know that he had been the more fortunate of the two because it was he whom she had looked at when she spoke." (p.144)

This quote really captures the hypnotising effect Roxane seems to have over people, not just when she sings, but something very powerfully attractive about her whole personality. With the music then available she find, from amongst the other hostages, Mr Kato (another for the Japanese guests) who plays the piano, and who's quiet talent blossoms under her influence. Her singing then becomes the thing that punctuates their day and provides hope and consolation for their situation. But it also ensures that the terrorists now have no intention of killing anybody. As time passes it is as if the whole group has slipped into some kind of dream world, where they exist apart from reality, the practicalities of life barely concerning them. Most of the hostages sit anonymously in the background with only a few playing any part. The story focusses on the developing relationships between Mr Hosokawa and Roxane, and between Gen and Carmen, one of two young girls amongst the group of teenage terrorists.

"On the morning the rains ended, Gen waited until the last note had been sung and then went to stand beside Carmen. It was a particularly good time to talk without being noticed as everyone wandered around in a state of stunned confusion after Roxane let go of her final note. If anyone had thought to simply walk out the door, they might not have been stopped, but no one was thinking about leaving. When Mr Hosokawa went to get her water, Roxane stood up and followed him and then looped her arm through his arm." (p.201)

The story is about beauty, and how it can change lives. It is about how circumstances can transform your life, how something happens and you have to look again at what is really important. It is about potential unfulfilled or lost. It is about what binds human beings together and what keeps them apart. It reminded me of 'The Plague' by Albert Camus (we did 'L'Etranger' for A level and I read this one as well, but in English), in which a town is in quarantine because of the presence of a plague, and the people just have to sit and wait. A man is writing a book, and spends the whole of the story writing the first sentence, trying to get it just perfect, and he says how since you don't know how long your situation may continue there is not urgency to move on, you just live each day and focus on it entirely. This story was like that. Bel Canto lacked any atmosphere of fear, which partly seemed a bit strange given the circumstance but then as the time passed it seemed right, because then the denouement was all the more shocking.
I did not like the epilogue at all. It seemed wrong and unnecessary, I won't elaborate so as not to spoil the story. But nevertheless a beautifully written book, totally captivating, please read it.


  1. Sorry it took me a while to come here. I like your blog and I'll join as soon as the google connect comes back. It's down for an hour or so. Thanks for visiting my scary stories!

  2. I did read this and had a very similar reaction. It kind of crept up on me and I became so involved and lost in the book. My cover was different though and I had a quite different view of the house. Great review of a great book.


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