Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Bel Canto

Ann Patchett's novel Bel Canto was originally published in 2001 and won a Pen/Faulkner Award. My paperback copy released by Perennial has 318 pages. From here "bel canto" is "Italian for 'beautiful singing.' In a bel canto style opera, the beauty of singing is more important than the plot or the words." Beautiful singing plays a major role in this novel.

The plot is seemingly very simple and actually dissuaded me from reading this book for years. A famous opera singer, Roxanne Coss, is hired to sing in an unnamed South American country at a birthday party held for a wealthy Japanese businessman, Katsumi Hosokawa . The party is held at the vice president's home and attended by many international business people and diplomats. During her performance 18 armed terrorists enter the residence, planning to take the president hostage. The problem is that at the last minute, the president of this country had decided to stay home to watch his soap opera. This sets the stage for the terrorists to make the fateful decision to keep some of these esteemed guests as hostages.

While reading Bel Canto you are lulled into a feeling of peaceful co-existence between the terrorists and hostages. Some of them form an incomprehensible bond with each other. They form a sort of society, with Gen Watanabe, Mr. Hosokawa's translator, playing a major part in helping everyone understand the languages of others. As the weeks turn into months of captivity, everyone seems numb to the fact that this one action that started their cohabitation, taking hostages, is going to have to end, and will likely end badly. The actual end of the book was quite unexpected for me.

It was mentioned in a review at Amazon that Bel Canto is written in the manner of "magic realism", as is One Hundred Years of Solitude (which I did not enjoy). Magic realism is defined here as, "A narrative technique that blurs the distinction between fantasy and reality. It is characterized by an equal acceptance of the ordinary and the extraordinary. Magic realism fuses (1) lyrical and, at times, fantastic writing with (2) an examination of the character of human existence and (3) an implicit criticism of society, particularly the elite." I'm not sure I would put Bel Canto in this category, although some parts of the definition could fit.

Ann Patchett's writing is incredible. Previously I had read Patron Saint of Liars and also enjoyed that novel, but in comparison, Bel Canto is better, in my opinion. This book is highly recommended.

"Never had he thought, never once, that such a woman existed, one who stood so close to God that God's own voice poured from her. How far she must have gone inside herself to call up that voice. It was as if the voice came from the center part of the earth and by the sheer effort and diligence of her will she had pulled it up through the dirt and rock and through the floorboards of the house, up to her feet, where it pulled through her, reaching, lifting, warmed by her, and then out of the white lily of her throat and straight to God in heaven. It was a miracle and he wept for the gift of bearing witness."

"The kind of love that offers its life so easily, so stupidly, is always the love that is not returned."

"Death was already sucking air from the bottom of their lungs. It left them weak and listless."

"It was too much work to remember things you might not have again, and so, one by one they opened up their hands and let them go."

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