Sunday 30th July, 2006


Bel Canto...

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Title: Bel Canto
Author: Ann Patchett
Awards: Orange Prize for Fiction; PenFaulkner Award, finalist: National Book Critics Circle

You may not know it, but books these days fight hard for their positions on the shelf. With their words tucked in tightly during the initial squeeze, past fellow competitors, then blasting all the wonder, the genius, the inspired joy that they can from a stingy 20x2 cm of spine. Then time runs out on their high-rent, eye-level shelf space. Books these days contemplate lives at the bottom of the discount store barrel. How it must feel to have Bel Canto, an old hag with a 2001 publication date, parading her wares face out. It must be insufferable. When my eyes catch the cover and I pass a quick finger down the front, books these days must want to bawl at the injustice of it. But too late, the old hag is full of quiet confidence so, I pick her up. The blurb just barely manages to hook me but Patchett needs only the first chapter to reel me in.

Somewhere in South America, heads of state hold arms extended and palms cupped towards Japanese industrial magnate Mr Hosokawa, whose factories could deliver them, at least partially, from poverty.

Mr Hosokawa isn’t interested in the fate of the nation but he is sufficiently enticed to wine and dine when Roxane Coss is invited to perform at a party held in his honour. He spends the night of his 53rd birthday first gazing at the world’s greatest soprano and then staring down the barrels of 18 guns. A local group of freedom fighters fresh from the jungle crash the party and they’re looking for the president. Except, he’s not there.

The terrorists, refusing to make do with the vice president as sloppy seconds, hold 40 powerful international businessmen, and the stunning Roxane, hostage. The ordeal lasts four and a half months.

In that time, Patchett allows her characters to find an emotional escape that reaches past the physical confines of the house and in so doing, to rediscover themselves and unearth a personal sense of value where previously, they may have appreciated none.

The singularity of the hostage situation creates for the characters and the reader, a world no larger than the walls that ring the captives. In this world, accountants turn accompanists; burly Russians declare themselves; quiet vice presidents find strength and captor falls in love with hostage.

It is only when I’d closed the book and was happily attempting to relive the magic, that reality caught up and I realised that Bel Canto reads like a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome.

The generals in charge threaten to kill everyone, but they never make good on such weighty promises. And after the first month, then the second, the third and the fourth, it seems odd that not one of the men are proactive, or at the very least, foolhardy enough to stage the smallest of insurrections.

Instead, after a short talk about it through Gen, the polylinguist in their midst, a few of them decide that the language barrier is insurmountable; they couldn’t possibly try to communicate between themselves long enough to get their act together and so they spend half a year playing cards, reading sailing magazines and falling in love with Roxane.

Ah Roxane. The essence of all that is perfection. The men imbue her voice, her face, her very being with their ideas of transcendent beauty. And how everyone loves to hear her sing: the hostages, their captors, the militia digging a tunnel beneath the house and the civilians who gather in the street.

Everyday Roxane must practise and every day, willingly, they sit to listen. Four and a half months spent listening to the warblings of an operatic soprano with only one pair of underwear on top of that? I don’t think my enthusiasm for Roxane would have lasted past the dinner.

However, after a few more caustic light bulb moments in the above vein, I hung my head in shame.

With a name like Bel Canto, I expected a stand-out blow-out shoot-out? Arnie and his bazooka? After Father Arguedas waxed poetic like this:

“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 centre 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 into 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.”

A tragic opera laid in print, Bel Canto should be read not so much to get to the ending, as to enjoy the paths you take on the way there.

This is independent art house, not Hollywood blockbuster.Bel Canto is available at Nigel R Khan Bookstores.

©2003-2004 Trinidad Publishing Company Limited

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