All the brilliant things we might have done with our lives if only we suspected we knew how.
Several readers have recommended Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto to me, and while I intended all along to read it, I didn’t realize that there was a copy already in the house until my wife was about to lend it to a friend of ours to read. She raved about it as well, and with good reason, as it’s a beautifully written, intelligent novel with one of the best-developed character ensembles I have ever found in a work of literature.
Bel Canto is based on the 1997 hostage crisis in Lima, where fourteen members of a fringe guerrilla group invaded the Japanese embassy and held 72 people hostage for four months, at the end of which the Peruvian army stormed the embassy and killed all of the terrorists, with one hostage dying of a heart problem in the assault. Patchett’s version is in an unnamed, poor, Spanish-speaking country, in the Vice-President’s residence, where a party is being held in honor of a Japanese executive, Mr. Hosokawa, who may be about to bring a large capital investment to the country. However, he only agreed to attend the party when the organizers agreed to fly in Roxane Coss, a world-famous opera singer and Hosokawa’s favorite artist.
Patchett tips us off up front that the eventual murder victims will be the terrorists, not the hostages, although of course the characters don’t know that as we follow them through the ordeal. Patchett has created an amazing number of fleshed-out characters, showing skill both at delving into human emotions and at painting characters with the flourishes that give them definition. Once the initial period after the raid has ended, each character, terrorist and hostage alike, finds his or her niche within the makeshift commune, like the Vice President who becomes the housekeeper, or the poor priest with a secret love of opera. (In a flashback scene, Father Arguedas confesses his love of opera to his priest, who responds, “Art is not sin. It’s not always good. But it’s not a sin.” The priest asks Arguedas if he prefers Verdi or Wagner, and when Arguedas responds, “Verdi,” the priest answers, “You are young. Come back and tell me again in twenty years.”) But more impressive is the way Patchett takes the relationships between some of the hostages and some of the terrorists beyond simple Stockholm Syndrome territory, showing how factors such as age, size, gender, and skill define interpersonal relationships and building a web of interactions on that basis.
If there’s a flaw at all in Bel Canto, it’s that Patchett made her terrorists too sympathetic. Most of the rank and file members are just teenagers without ideology, and each of the leaders has some distinct humanizing trait. It’s good writing, but also the book’s biggest departure from reality.
Bel Canto lacks a linear plot, instead telling the stories around the shift from the captor/hostage dynamic to a commune that is so tranquil that some of the hostages find they lose their desire to leave. Whether this is because they’re truly happy or because they’re happy to be escaping from the tedium or stresses of their daily lives is left to the reader to decide.