Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

A group of wealthy internationals in an unnamed South American country are captured by a group of inept and confused terrorists and held captive in the Vice-presidential mansion. Among the hostages is Mr. Hosokawa, a Japanese business tycoon who also happens to be an opera aficionado, and Roxane Coss, a famous and gifted opera diva. Gen is Mr. Hosokawa’s translator, and he becomes the interpreter for the entire group as the time of their captivity stretches from days to weeks into months.

The style of this novel reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, maybe because the setting is South America, and of Madeleine L’Engle, because the emphasis is on characterization and relationships rather than plot or theme. The way the characters develop in this story of imprisonment and passion and broken communication is really the focus of the novel.

Bel Canto is a tragedy. In fact, the author tells us from the beginning that things will not end well for the terrorists. Then, she proceeds to make her readers become attached to individuals among the hostage group and among the terrorist group, too. As the captors and captives become bonded to one another and as they communicate via music and through the interpreter, Gen, the reader slowly begins to want the interlude to continue, to want the prisoners to be able to stay removed from the world, to want the “freedom fighters” to be able to walk out truly free.

But, of course, it cannot be. Just as Osama bin Laden must have known that a violent death would find him eventually, the revolutionaries in the book, at least the leaders, know that they are doomed with no exit plan. Nevertheless, they and their hostages manage to live within the moment, outside of time so to speak, and over the course of the stand-off the people in the house form relationships that defy logic and reason.

I was quite impressed with this novel, and I can see why it was awarded both the Orange Prize for Fiction and PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

Dave Welch interviews Ann Patchett at Powell’s Books.

4 thoughts on “Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

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