Helynne's Reviews > Bel Canto
by Ann Patchett
by Ann Patchett
Sep 26, 2011
This fascinating story of an ongoing terrorist-hostage situation in a South American country (unnamed, but apparently Peru), is a multi-layered intrigue told in a masterful style. Millionaire Japanese executive Katsumi Hosokawa, an opera lover from childhood and rabid fan of American soprano Roxane Coss, accepts an invitation to a birthday party in his honor at the home of the country’s vice president. (He really attends only because Coss has been invited as guest performer). A group of armed terrorists led by three “generals” who command a team mostly of teenaged boys and girls, storm the home and take everyone hostage because they want to kidnap the country’s president. But the president is not in attendance because he refused to miss his favorite Tuesday soap opera. (I did not make that up). Thus, the frustrated terrorists finds themselves stuck in a luxury home with an eclectic group of people from numerous nationalities, and bewildered as to how to use them as pawns to force the government to meet their various demands. Despite the intervention of a Red Cross arbitrator who becomes little more than a errand boy delivering food, detergent, and eventually, sheet music, negotiations falter. The government, of course, won’t budge, and situation falls into a stalemate as hostages and terrorists reluctantly have to coexist and get to know one another as individuals. I like to think that one of the most important themes of the story is the power of music not only to “sooth the savage breast,” but also to change people’s emotions, attitudes, and ability to relate to one another. After the initial shock of being detained by gun-wielding thugs subsides somewhat, another Japanese guest reveals his ability to play the piano, and Roxane agrees to sing. Patchett’s description of the how the diva’s rendition of “O Mio Bambino Caro” affects guests and terrorists alike is beautifully achieved. From that point on, the power shifts a little to the hostages, as the terrorists back off a little and both sides began to see one another as individuals. Therefore, another theme is that people thrown together will find ways to bond—not only sexually, although there are instances of that, but also in terms of filial, artistic, and other kinds of emotional rapport. Naturally, all of the bonding among people who speak a multitude of different languages will call for some translation. Here is where Hosokawa’s official translator, Gen, a polyglot of Garantuan proportions, becomes one of the most fascinating characters in the book as he translates, negotiates, placates, and deals with new dimensions of his own burgeoning humanity. Among the “terrorist” teens are a beautiful and intelligent, but illiterate, 17-year-old girl who wishes to read and write Spanish and English, a small kid who becomes a chess genius, and another boy who seems destined to be a world-class singer. I do not wish to give anything away except to say that I see the third main theme of the story as the inevitable fact that gun violence begets the same, and that this situation will not end well. But I hope that statement will not tout people off from reading the story because it is truly rich and thought provoking.
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