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Ann Patchett: Bel Canto

I actually read this after reading State of Wonder and was expecting great things, particularly in light of its reputation. Sadly, I was somewhat disappointed. It certainly is not a bad book but nor is it as great as some have suggested. Stockholm syndrome novels are not new, though not overdone either. The story in this novel involves an unnamed, presumably fictitious Latin American country. As the country is poor and desperate for foreign development and some of the terrorists speak Quechua, we must assume that it is based on Ecuador, Bolivia or Peru (or all three). A party is being held in the Vice-President’s (official) house. The nominal reason for the party is the birthday of Katsumi Hosokawa, CEO of Nansei, the largest Japanese electronics corporation. He has been invited to the party because the country wants him to set up factories in it. He has not the slightest intention of doing so but has come purely because the country has also invited, at great expense, Roxane Coss, a US soprano, of whom Hosokawa is a great fan and whom he has travelled the world to see performing in opera. She rarely performs privately but happens to be between engagements and her agent has negotiated a very large fee. It is not clear why Hosokawa could not himself have paid the very large fee and had her come to Japan, thereby avoiding travel and his hypocrisy towards the host country, something he does feel mildly guilty about.

As mentioned, the party is at the Vice-President’s house. The President who was going to be there has dropped out as he wants to watch his favourite soap opera on TV! This soap opera is shown every day at midday, with a long summary of the previous week’s events shown on Tuesday night. The President never misses it. Why could he not tape it? Apparently, he does not like watching a taped version but surely in this case… His absence, as we will see, is key. In addition to Roxane Coss and her (Swedish) accompanist, there are other employees of Nansei, including Gen, called the translator but actually the interpreter, as well as general factotum to Hosokawa, other industrialists, looking to follow Nansei, and a host of diplomats and the odd great and good from the unnamed host country. Very soon after the party has started a group of shoddy looking terrorists bursts in from the air conditioning vents. They are looking for the President but he is, of course, at home watching his soap opera. They are very disappointed, as it was their intention to capture him and quickly disappear into the jungle. There are two main groups of terrorists in the country – La Dirección Auténtica, who, initially, are thought to be the group who have just appeared, and La Familia de Martin Suarez, who turn out to be the group we see. (They are so named in honour of a ten-year old boy killed by government troops while handing out flyers at a political rally.)

The terrorist group consists of three generals and several young men (and, as it later turns out, two young women). Some of them do not speak Spanish well. All look impoverished. They have never, for example, seen a television working. The generals are at a loss as to what to do. A Swiss Red Cross official, Messner, who had been on holiday in the country, is called into help. The terrorists release the women (except for Roxane Coss), the workers, priests and, later, a few others, but they keep Roxane Coss and the ones they think they can ransom, including the Nansei employees, diplomats and other industrialists. Two interesting things happen. Not only do we get Stockholm Syndrome, though on a personal level only, as there is no discussion of the political aims of the terrorist group with their hostages but we get it in reverse, as, gradually, a warm bond is set up between most of the terrorists and their hostages. They play chess and football together. They cook together. One of the female terrorists and one of the male hostages have an affair. Roxane Coss realises that one of the terrorists has a wonderful singing voice and decides to train him. In short, they become like family. The other interesting aspect is the concept of time. No-one on either side sees any urgency in resolving the matter. The terrorists make demands that are ignored. The government makes their demands, also ignored. But time drags on. We follow the change in seasons. There seems to be a general impression that this will last forever. Only two people seem to suffer a deterioration in health – Messner and one of the generals. Everyone else remains surprisingly healthy.

One of the things that did annoy me were the minor errors. Gen is referred to throughout as a translator. He is not or, at least, not in this book. He is an interpreter, a different profession, a different skill. I would just add that his ability to speak so many languages, apparently fluently, is improbable if not impossible. Read them to a certain degree, yes, but speak them, no. Patchett uses the US solecism of could care less when the correct (and accurate) term is couldn’t care less. She calls Mozart’s opera Cosi fan tutti, tutti, of course, being masculine, where Mozart very specifically uses the feminine tutte. The terrorist group is called La Familia de Martin Suarez. As she has supplied the correct accents on the other terrorist group, why not on this one? It should be La Familia de Martín Suárez. One of the terrorists is called Gilbert. Not impossible, but Gilbert is an English or French name. It is far more likely that he would be called Gilberto, the Spanish equivalent. In fact, it would be far more likely that Gilbert and the other terrorists would have Quechua rather than the Spanish names they all have. These are all trivial but, together, show a degree of sloppiness.

The idea of having terrorists taking hostages and the two groups becoming close is an interesting one but not, I feel, interesting enough to make this a great novel. Patchett also has one other interest in this book – love. Great emphasis is made on the rediscovered love of the French ambassador for his wife. There are affairs between a terrorist and a hostage and between two of the hostages, both sexual but also both very romantic. Two of the hostages will marry after the siege has been lifted. In short, Patchett seems to be saying that love is what survives and who can argue with that?

Publishing history

First published 2001 by HarperCollins