BEL CANTO by Ann Patchett

bel cantoBel canto is Italian for “beautiful singing”, and the phrase is often used to evoke a lost singing tradition.  And this absolutely gorgeous song of a book is a wonderfully rendered juxtaposition of violence and beauty.

It is set in an unnamed South or Central American country, but the book notes tell us that it is more or less Lima, Peru.  As with most stories set in these locales, it has a surreal flair that colors the tale.   It is all third person narrative,  and I will try to give you the bones of the story without giving anything away, because I really want you to read this.

It begins with Mr. Hosokawa, the founder of an extremely successful Japanese company, and his 53rd birthday.  Mr. Hosokawa has been enamored of opera all his days, and especially of the famed soprano diva Roxanne Cross.  The government of the unnamed third world country in an attempt to lure Mr. Hosokawa into investing heavily in the country, comes up with the idea of hosting a birthday party for him, to which they invited the celebrated soprano, at great cost.

Because, and only because, the soprano would be singing, Mr. Hosokawa, together with his interpreter/translator, Gen Watanabe, who speaks an astonishing number of languages, agrees to attend, along with a few other higher ups of his company.  It is to be held at the mansion of the Vice President, and the President would be there, as well as other ambassadors and foreign titans of industry.

After the meal, and after Roxanne Cross had sung, suddenly they were interrupted by  a group of terrorist guerillas, who had entered through the air conditioning duct work, expecting to take hostage the President of the country, to use as a bargaining chip to free the brother of one of the guerillas and other prisoners in the notoriously awful prisons, and to give a vague freedom to the people.

However, the Prez wasn’t there.  He begged off, but everyone in the country knew it was in order to watch his favorite tela novela (soap opera),  and he was at home.  What to do now?   They had no president, but had over a hundred people and didn’t know what to do about them all.  The head terrorist, suffering from a terrible case of shingles which threatened to take over his eye,  was undecided.  A knock on the door produces a Red Cross negotiator who convinces the terrorists to release the women and any ill men.

Those who are left include the interpreter, busy running from person to person, as there are Germans, Russians, Japanese, and of course, Mz. Cross who only speaks English, a young priest from the nearby parish, who refuses to leave,  and as it turns out, all of the soldiers of the guerilla group are just kids, teenagers, and two of them are girls!   While negotiations move apace, the soprano’s accompanist dies of a diabetic coma, because he didn’t want to tell the singer because he was in love with her.

As negotiations break down, with neither side willing to give in to the other’s demands, days turn into weeks, weeks turn into months, until the inevitable finale.   During the time of hostage, they manage to negotiate a bunch of operatic sheet music from a local arts patron, and Roxanne goes back to singing three hours every morning to keep her voice.  The music and the singing softens their situation, and all are affected by it.

As you can see, the plot is an opera — one of those operatic implausible plots, with this one and that one falling in love with various members of the company.   It is all about the music, and the opera of life, and the denouement is the only ending possible.

Ms. Pratchett is the author of The Patron saint of Liars, and The Magician´s Assistant, among others.  I have her State of Wonder and Truth & Beauty in my reading queue.  I might actually live long enough to read them.

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2 comments on “BEL CANTO by Ann Patchett

  1. Deb Atwood says:

    Like you, I found the writing of this book absolutely gorgeous. My book group read her novel State of Wonder, which I liked more than my fellow readers did. (I think I’m a cheap date.)

  2. […] Another terrific story by a master story teller.   I talked about one of her other books which I read, Bel Canto, here. […]

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