BEL CANTO.

By Ann Patchett.
New York: Perennial, 2002.
ISBN # 0-06-093441.
318 pages.

Comments of Bob Corbett
December 2004

This novel is a curious blend of a romantic love story revolving around opera, and a terrorist kidnapping. A very strange mix. In an unnamed South American country a birthday party is taking place in honor of Karasumi Hosokawa, a very rich Japanese entrepreneur whom the country wishes would invest there. Hosokawa is not only fabulously wealthy but an opera fanatic, especially infatuated by the famous lyric soprano, Roxane Coss. In order to draw him to this party Roxane Coss is invited to sing for the private dinner party hosted by the countryís vice president. After dinner there is a recital and as it is ending a group of terrorists break in and take over the house holding all guests as hostages.

However, they werenít interested in the guests, not even the famous Coss or the superrich Hosokawa. They were after the president of the country, who he had stayed home watch his favorite soap opera.

The terrorist are surprised and disappointed in the absence of the president and donít really have any contingency plans nor any ideas what to do. Before long it is too late to do anything, the house is surrounded by troops, and a hostage situation develops. The next day all house servants, women guests (except Roxane Coss) and any men who are either ill or pretend to be, are released, leaving 39 hostages.

Just about this time in the novel, within the first dozen pages, the author announces in a general sense what the outcome will be, so there is no real element of surprise to be expected.

What does take place in the next 300 or so pages is a fascinating character study of several of the major characters including Coss and Hosokawa who fall in love though neither can speak the otherís language. Vice President Ruben Iglesias emerges as one of the most endearing characters and undergoes a life-transition in the months of the hostage holding, in the end preferring to give up his vice presidency and just become a gardener. In the interim he plays the consummate host in his house, enjoying very much serving his guests and even the terrorists. We meet several of the very rich world guests at the party including a French minister and three Russian diplomats. Several of the terrorists themselves emerge as fascinating characters including the young female terrorist, Beatriz who just wants to watch television as much as she can, Cesar who turns out to have a magnificent tenor voice and is being given lessons by Roxanne Coss, and Ishmael who learns to play chess simply by watching older men play and becomes a chess star.

However the character who makes so much of the novel possible is Gen Watanabe, translator for Karasumi Hosokawa. Gen speaks many languages including all those represented among both the terrorists and guests save the Quechuan language which most of the terrorist speak, though they all speak some Spanish as well. Gen becomes the translator for the whole group and even for the one and only negotiator we meet, vacationing Swiss Red Cross negotiator, Joachim Messner who doesnít speak Spanish.

But Gen is really more than just the translator. He is the connection among all these folks and even the love affair between Roxanne and Hosokawa is carried on via Genís translations. Eventually he himself falls in love with the beautiful young terrorist, Carmen, and has both a torrid secret love affair with her and teaches her to read Spanish.

These are not the typical terrorists we hear of these days. There is a group like the more typical terrorists in the country and the army at first assumes it is this blood thirsty group. But this is not. It is a group founded by family members to respond to the unjust arrest and imprisonment of one of their own. They have no stomach for killing and make no threats to do so as long as they are not attacked. The army seems to believe them and there is a stand off for several months as the terrorists continually make extravagant political demands which the government will not even consider..

In that time there is a gradual breakdown of discipline among the terrorists and a great deal of crossing over from side to side in friendships and love affairs. There are also many people who undergo profound changes in their life values and plans for the future.

A huge portion of the novel revolves around opera music and for any one who enjoys opera there is a great delight in the spell which Roxaneís voice could bring upon the assembled group, both hostages and captors. And one can so sense the delight in being in the daily presence of this stunning voice that one almost wishes one had been at the dinner party and was privileged to be in on this unusual and magic musical moment, even if it meant being a hostage.

Despite the fact that the author has told us the outcome in a vague manner at the beginning, everything in the story is so friendly, fun, uplifting that we really arenít prepared for the tragic ending. Not only was I not prepared for the ending, I was disappointed with it. Not that it was tragic, but that it came so very quickly and was over just as quickly. Perhaps Ann Patchett wanted the flow of the novel to reflect the quick action of the end. If so, she succeeded in that, but not without disappointing this reader.

That complaint is small change. The novel is fun, gripping, touching. We are almost lured into to thinking that this was all just a lovely long party, but the ending brings us back to earth with a resounding slap in the last couple of pages.

A quick and enjoyable read.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu