Bel Canto by Anne Patchett
From an occasional series of reviews in collaboration with the Islington Hotel to celebrate great writing and the discussion of literature.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
I have come to this book late in the scheme of things. Bel Canto won the Orange Prize and the Pen/ Faulkner Award in 2002. But somehow I missed it. 2002 was a busy year. My children were 2,7 and 13. Not much time for reading. I was also writing The Butterfly Man, being something of an activist, and running an advertising agency. It was a busy year. But having waited all this time to discover it, I suspect I have enjoyed Bel Canto more.
The story appears to be so simple that I found myself thinking that Patchett could never sustain a novel on such a premise. A world-famous opera singer is invited to sing at the lavish birthday dinner of a high profile Japanese business man. The setting is an unnamed and (possibly) Central American country and the dinner is the idea of the President of that unnamed country. The guests are a multi-cultural lot drawn from the international business community and diplomatic services. The food is beautiful. The flowers exquisite. The opera singer splendid. But things quickly go wrong.
Just as the last note of the diva is heard, the grand residence is invaded by a group of armed terrorists. It’s easy to call such people terrorists, now, in the 21st century. It’s become a favourite label. Yet in truth these people are protestors of the current government. They have seen children shot down in the street, and friends and relatives incarcerated. They want the people they love who are in jail to be released. They think that by kidnapping the President they will acquire a powerful bargaining chip.
Unfortunately the President has cancelled his attendance at the dinner at the last minute. Uncertain how to proceed, the small band take the guests hostage, hoping their demands will still be met.
And so the story ensues. Where we might imagine violence and hysteria, Patchett brings a tone of strange calm. The same sort of calm before a tornado hits. There is an electricity in the air borne of emotion. And those emotions grow and distil. From this most unusual and traumatic experience of being held captive at gun-point, and of being a captor, unusual relationships form based on a love of music, chess, literacy and language.
A young Japanese interpreter, Gen, becomes a central character in helping this disparate group understand one another. The terrorists slowly becomes individuals, not the faceless gun-toting bandits of the first night. The guests find commonality.
There is a sense of metaphor about this novel that alludes to the entire human condition. Being thrown into a single world with disparate needs and agendas, cultures and histories. What brings us together? The things we discover that we share in common. Food. Time. Fear. Intellect. And love.
This is a most unusual love story. Not only between individuals, but for life itself. In the splendor of nature. The fragile experience of being human. We know it will end – and badly for some of us. But still it is an experience of days. And in this evocation, Bel Canto is luminous and unforgettable.
This is an occasional series of reviews in collaboration with the Islington Hotel to celebrate great writing and the discussion of literature.
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