Sunday, May 15, 2011

Beautiful Singing

Bel Canto, Ann Patchett
HarperCollins, 2001, 318 pages

It’s a kidnapping attempt gone wrong. In search of a South American president, a band of guerrilla soldiers bust a lavish dinner party at the VP’s palace. After training for months, planning, plotting, waiting for this evening, the band of rebels infiltrates Vice President Ruben’s home only to find their prey, President Masuda, not in attendance. The invaders, embarrassed and empty-handed, seize control over the only thing within their grasp: a collection of dinner party guests. What follows in the palace, as the outside world pushes for release of the captives and surrender of the soldiers, crescendos into a beautiful harmony between the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” between international dignitaries and jungle rebels.

With its guns, political demands, and South American setting, Bel Canto might put off the average pleasure reader by seeming inaccessible and layered with too much unfamiliar context. But just as the soldiers’ intended plot fails, so does the potentially weighty plot of volleyed threats and demands. The plot that emerges instead tells a story of humanity, the equality of all men, the ways we react under pressure, and our innate desire for love and home.

Patchett’s story unfolds like a reality show. First there are the tensions, the bold statements off camera while the on-screen drama is hesitant, cautious. As the rebel leaders take notes about the hostages, “the guests downplayed their own importance when questioned. After all, in this room of prestigious international guests, “no one was quite willing to lie, but they tugged down the edges of the truth” to avoid potentially disastrous fates. Soon, though, truths start to emerge, colors start to show, defenses come down. Surprisingly, the line in the sand you expected to be etched deeply between captors and captives is washed away quickly by the tide of normalcy that necessarily intrudes on any attempt to forge life in close quarters. The players in the drama prove not to be as good or as bad as you once thought. They are hued, shades of good, shades of bad. General Benjamin, on of the rebel leaders, has a face inflamed with shingles, a malady that makes him tired, understandably irritable, and forgivably short-tempered despite his flagrant criminal intent. Carmen, one of two teenaged girls who has joined the rebel band, secretly wants to learn English and pursues the hostage translator, Gen, to be her personal coach. Mr. Hosokawa, an electronics executive, has a passion for opera, specifically for Roxane Coss, the world-renowned soprano who has been taken hostage with him. It’s hard to hate anyone, even Beatriz, the other rebel girl, a tough-skinned, tomboy-ish brat. And it’s impossible not to love Cesar, the rebel boy who falls in love not with Roxane but with the music she sings, longing to stretch his own vocal wings. In the palace that becomes home for 40 hostages and their captors, dynamics turn enemies and strangers into friends, chess partners, accompanists, fellow chefs, even lovers.

The scene – the vice president’s palace – remains static throughout the novel, a risky move for Patchett who could lose her audience quickly. But she keeps her readers intrigued even within the tight quarters. On the first day after being taken hostage Father Arguedas, one of few locals in residence at the palace, “explained that what they were looking at in the hours they spent staring out the window was called garúa, which was more than mist and less than drizzle and hung woolly and gray over the city in which they were now compelled to stay.” In a place where “time, in the manner in which they had all understood it, was over,” it is just the sort of weather one would expect. But eventually, the garúa “simply stopped, so that one day everything had the saturated quality of a book dropped into a bathtub and the next day the air was bright and crisp and extremely blue.” As the weather brightens, so the story’s action also begins to open up, reaching for fresh air. The story blossoms from concentrated action in the large ballroom to life as it spreads out through the kitchen where large meals must be prepared, into a sitting room where chess is played, into the china closet where secret meetings are conducted at midnight, and up the servants’ stairs to the bedrooms in the private wing. Even the backyard is swept into the action. Patchett ushers the reader through ever-widening circles until the walls of the palace property are all that separate timeless hostage life from the outside world.

As the rules loosen on the hostages, Roxane and her voice finally settle in at center stage. “She started the morning at six o’clock because she woke up when the light came in through her window and when she woke up she wanted to work. She took her bath and had two pieces of toast and a cup of tea that Carmen made for her, brought up on a yellow wooden tray that the Vice President had picked out for this purpose.” With opera consecrating each morning like a holy ritual, life becomes beautiful to everyone living in Vice President Ruben’s home. Chess, soccer games, gardening, and cooking are pursuits shared by both soldiers and hostages. Life becomes nearly idyllic. Routine is established, friendships bloom and flourish, and everyone is free to think, play, love, and hope as they wish.

But paradise can’t last forever. A stalemate surfaces as everyone realizes that the end must come. The reader, feeling the pile of pages thicken on the left and become ever thinner on the right, fears the end, knowing there is no good way out. Either the soldiers will eventually want what they came for, or the captives will want their old lives back. The world will not allow this strange marriage of good and evil to go on forever.

Patchett gives her readers a sweet taste of life paused, life caught between action and reaction. It is a lull that cannot last, a surprising eye of a deadly hurricane offering momentary windless peace. The story of Bel Canto provides for its readers the same fleeting sense of perfection it gives to its own characters, like the last note of an aria, ringing, quivering, fading, finally dying in the cool night air.

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