Author: Ann Patchett
Awards: Orange Prize for Fiction; PenFaulkner Award, finalist:
National Book Critics Circle
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,
Mr Hosokawa isnt 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 worlds 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 theyre looking
for the president. Except, hes 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 Id 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
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
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 couldnt 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
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 dont 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:
had he thought, never once, that such a woman existed, one
who stood so close to God that Gods own voice poured
from her. How far she must have gone inside herself to call
up that voice.
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.