Book Reviews with Lauren: Bel Canto

Lauren Cono, 129 TESS


Title: Bel Canto
Author: Ann Patchett
Published: 2001
Historical Context and Synopsis:

This story was inspired by an incident in Lima, Peru during the late 90s when a group of heavily armed revolutionaries “seized more than 400 people attending a diplomatic reception at the residence of the Japanese ambassador,” a situation that was not resolved for over 4 months. Bel Canto is a fictional attempt to try and reimagine what could have taken place inside those walls during that hostage situation.

The author places an operatic diva, soprano Roxane Coss, at the centerstage of the drama, casting many minor characters (such as the translator Gen and his employer Mr. Hosokawa, a young priest, the Vice President, and several of the young terrorists) into supporting roles that intertwine and blossom beautifully alongside Roxane’s narrative. Americans, French, Russians, Japanese, Italians, Portuguese and the local natives of a poor and unnamed Spanish-speaking country, intermingle under one roof and their story plays out like the melodramatic scenes of a haunting opera.

Personal Connections and Reflections:

Ever feel like your Peace Corps service is a bit like a hostage situation? Watching what you say, dressing riap roi to please others, stunted personal freedoms, the struggle to communicate… Now that may be a bit of a stretch, however, the way this novel unfolds is not completely unlike our experiences with a dramatic adaptation to a new environment, interacting with people from all different backgrounds and languages therefore having to find creative ways to communicate, and not being able to do the things you may have done in your former life.

The narrative starts with a more dark and dreary first half, when the alien guards are strict and unpredictable so that the hostages accept their deaths as eminent. Later the guards gain a humane element and the whole mood changes to a lighter, more hopeful and almost fantastical second half. Lines become blurred between the terrorists and the hostages. Love sprouts tenderly between unlikely people. Characters grow into roles they could never embody in their lives before living in this hostage situation. All of this transformation seems a natural phenomenon made possible by the melodic magic of the one woman hostage/soprano.

I like how the novel showcases the very real and the very best qualities of humanity. On one side, we learn about the Generals of the revolutionary movement and their long-list of demands (free political prisoners, change unfair voting laws, pardon petty crimes) from their oppressive home country. We also learn about their army of ragtag, teenage terrorists; some of my favorite moments are getting to know the young soldiers, poor kids from the jungle who jump in fright when a television is turned on and then become hooked to its popular soap operas.

On the other side, we see the perspectives of the high profile hostages, politicians, executives and dignitaries, all humbled and overwhelmed by their lack of the freedom, lack of their own basic living skills, and the large amount of free time at their disposal – while a Russian man spends weeks drafting the perfect confession of love to Roxane, the former Vice President finds a knack for household chores, and the young Catholic priest becomes an important confessional vessel for everyone.

Similar to prison narratives, where the captured persons first grieve their loss of freedom and contemplate what they lost, only to then learn to adapt and be present in their new environment, to later not knowing how they could ever survive if they were released from a place they didn’t want to be in in the first place. This place is the safest place the teenagers with guns have ever lived; this place and this situation is the only way that so many people could have possibly enjoyed such close proximity and endless long hours intimately near a breathtaking opera star.

What is labeled as a thriller by the all-knowing Wikipedia, is more an overgrown garden, with new blooms to discover in each chapter. Beautiful relationships flower and unexpected connections sprout from the unkempt garden because there are no gardeners allowed inside to clip the wild growths and bring a sense of “order” to its organic humanity. In this way, a utopia takes root from the soil of what could have been a bloodbath.

The reader begins to believe in the magic of this isolated garden and is left to the end wondering if the garden will grow into a jungle that is dense enough to protect the idyllic and improbable sanctuary from the realities and labels of the outside world. This story is now listed as one of my favorite books of all-time: a hostage situation turned heart-warming depiction of humanity bonding together under the spell of music. Maybe my Peace Corps journey will follow the same path…

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