Monday, November 17, 2003

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

I want to talk to you this morning about a much talked about novel by Ann Patchett entitled Bel Canto. I can’t remember a time in the recent past when so many of my reader friends have recommended a book to me as a must read. Some loved it because they are music lovers, some because they saw it as a beautiful love story, and some recommended it because they saw it as politically significant. I actually read it some weeks ago, but felt that I must let it steep for awhile before I talked about it.

Let me say immediately that I understand why my music loving friends loved this book. For those who already love opera, this book reinforced that love; others vowed to take another and closer look at opera after reading it, supposing that they must really have missed something in not paying closer attention to this music form. And still others simply appreciated the weaving of music into social and political themes.

And the love stories are touching, oddly convincing, and very sweet. But how can a novel about the taking of hostages be also a love story and a tribute to music? In fact, isn’t there something odd about mixing a love of music with such troubling political themes? I have to admit that I am uncomfortable about the juxtaposition of such serious political questions with love and music appreciation, and even after waiting for a few weeks, I still feel a little tricked by this book, feel that the plot is too contrived and the circumstances just too hard to believe (despite the beautiful writing). One could take as the controlling theme of the entire novel the following line:
The world was a dangerous place, notions of personal safety were a fairy story told to children at bedtime. All anyone had to do was turn the wrong corner and everything would be gone.
Indeed, and I think the novel succeeds well in making this point. In some sense any of us could have been at a concert, social-political function, benefit, and one way or another our existences pass from ordinary people to hostages. The life we all take for granted is suddenly very much not granted, not guaranteed, not even likely. Dostoevsky with three minutes to live in the execution yard, about to die as a political prisoner, Victor Frankl in a concentration camp. The miracle of waking up again, alive.

But Patchett wants to do more. She wants to put a human face on the captors; she wants to try to explain in some way that members of powerful and affluent countries like ours might hear or see, that even the question of what ‘terrorism’ means is a loaded, complex, difficult. For the most part, so-called ‘terrorists’ use the weapons and tactics they can muster. It seems the word really connotes little more than disapproval, a kind of pejorative finger-pointing. If I do it, it’s war or defense; if you do it, it’s terrorism. Is dropping two thousand pound bombs terrorist? My friends tell me just the shock-wave from the explosion kills everything within quite an incredible radius. Oh, but we do it, so it’s not terrorist. Surgical strikes that (whether it is hit or miss, a mistake or not) wipe out neighborhoods, not terror because the weapons of terror are ours, the acts have been sanctified by Bush and Co. We kill hundreds, thousands, but these are acts of war, not of terrorism. If you attack me with a jet plane, that’s warfare. If you kill yourself in the detonation of your weapon, it’s terrorism. Actually, if you’re on the ‘wrong’ side, the less powerful side, your war will be called terrorism. Or so it seems.

Patchett sees all of this. She sets us up as the concert goers, suddenly taken and helpless before a band of armed men. The wrinkle is that we come to know the men, and women as it turns out, who are our captors. Not just know them, but depend on them, fall in love with them; the captives finding (for many different existential reasons) themselves while existing in this limbo state, even to the point of deceiving themselves into believing that it can continue. Most of their captors are children, truly armed and dangerous, but also deeply ‘innocent’. And even the generals are jaded but good men, eager to help the even more powerless in the cities and villages they have come from.

Ironically, the intent of the attack, the seizing of the President of this South American country and holding him for political ransom, is thwarted from go; the president is at home watching his favorite soap opera. Now the so-called guerrillas have a bevy of hostages, but nothing to do with them. From the first moments, the captors’ fates are sealed, it is only the fate of the hostages that is in question. Days, weeks, even months of negotiations:
Both parties were intractable and what the party inside this wall didn’t understand was that the government was always intractable, no matter what the country, what the circumstances. The government did not give in, and when they said they were giving in they were lying, every time, you could count on it.
This put into the mouth of the Swiss Red Cross mediator who struggles from the beginning to bring about some sort of negotiated end.

The messages are important and true, and yet I find myself bothered by the book. Certainly, it would not have happened. For example, there is a young Japanese man among the captives who is a gifted linguist; he can interpret for this band of diplomats and businessmen and musicians and captors, going from French to German to Russian to Spanish to Japanese. Still, if not believable, it is a clever device. The translator’s relative importance in the community of captives soars, while the man he works for, one of the richest and most powerful men in the world, relies on the translator as much, more, than any of the others who hub through him. His wealth matters little, though the cooking prowess of one of the minor French diplomats ‘on board’ becomes pivotal, as well as the general housemaid, housekeeping contributions of the Vice President whose house happens to hold the hostages. We readers get to watch this odd band become a community, seeing what really counts in day to day living, and Patchett provides lots of insights along the way. All the little things perceptive novelists see, Patchett sees: what makes relationships good ones, how even old relationships can be ‘redeemed’, how the glow of sexual love can literally current through our lives, from out of the blue. How it transforms and metamorphoses.

The novel has to be contrived in order to work, and the messages seem to justify the contrivance. Still, there is something too neat about this novel. Maybe simply my jade showing through, my cynicism.

But enough of my petty reservations, let me close by reading a long and lovely passage voicing a young woman’s view of the crisis, a woman who happens to be one of the captors, one of the ‘terrorists’, and also happens to love the Japanese translator, Gen, who very much loves her. Her name is Carmen, whom we now know is as gifted at learning languages as her teacher and lover. Carmen is also a kind of personal captor to the famous opera singer, Roxanne Cross, who is a gigantic presence in the book though I have said little about her here. But to the scene:
Gen lived one life and in that life he was always a prisoner and his friends were the other prisoners, and even though he loved Carmen and got along politely with some of the terrorists, he never got confused and thought he wanted to join LFDMS. But for Carmen it was different. She had clearly two lives. She did her push-ups in the morning and stood for inspection. She carried her rifle on guard. She kept a boning knife in her boot and she knew how to use it. She obeyed orders. She was, as it had been explained to her, part of the forces that would bring about change. But she was also the girl who went to the china closet at night, who was learning to read in Spanish and could already say several things in English. Some mornings, Roxanne Cross let her climb into the impossibly soft sheets on her big bed, let her close her eyes for a few minutes and pretend she belonged there. She would pretend she was one of the prisoners, that she lived in a world with so many privileges that there was nothing to fight for. But no matter how the two sides got along, they were always two sides, and when she went form one to the other it was a matter of crossing over something.
Two sides, powerful and powerless, haves and have-nots. This is a good novel, and perhaps my friends are right, it is a great one.

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