The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time. In
this installment of
The New
, Ted Gioia reviews Bel
by Ann Patchett.
Bel Canto
by Ann Patchett

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

A Third World terrorist group holds hostage a prominent group of
politicians, executives and a famous American soprano who had the
bad fortune to be entertaining the wrong audience at the wrong time.
Government authorities settle in for a long
stand-off, and attempts to negotiate the
release of the hostages falter in the face of
untenable demands. A bloody confrontation
seems likely.

Sound familiar? We have all seen similar
set-ups in countless Hollywood action films.
But Ann Patchett’s
Bel Canto will defy every
expectation you bring to this rich book. Her
story has nothing in common with
Die Hard
or Air Force One or Speed or the many other
good-versus-evil stories that fill up the racks
at Blockbuster.

Every stereotype of the genre is over-turned—first of all, because
Ann Patchett has no interest in writing an action novel, or even a
suspense novel. But also because her most interesting developments
take place in the inner lives of her characters. Imagine Henry James
tackling a Tom Clancy scenario, with a dose of
Lost in Translation
added in for good measure, and you will get some idea of the piquant
flavor of this odd, but endearing, book.

The reader soon learns that the “good guys” aren’t quite so good as
one would like. And the “bad guys” aren’t so bad. And before
concludes, the roles have become entirely reversed, with the
traditional heroes falling short of the villains. This goes beyond the
famous Stockholm Syndrome, in which hostages begin to
sympathize with their captors. In
Bel Canto, the terrorists are
gradually co-opted by their victims—especially by the singing of
Roxane Coss, the opera star whose brief visit to South America to
perform for a private audience at the Vice President’s home now
stretches into an indefinite stay under house arrest.

Coss enlists one of the other hostages into accompanying her on the
piano as she continues her daily regimen of singing. The sounds of
her enchanting voice contribute to softening and harmonizing the
house where terrorists and victims are holding out. She eventually
discovers that one of the young terrorists has a promising singing
voice, and begins teaching him.

Something magical and unexpected happens as this plot develops.
Based on all our previous experiences with stories of this sort, we
anticipate that tensions will rise and that the narrative will gain
momentum as the tale progresses. Yet Patchett daringly moves in
the exact opposite direction. The pace becomes languorous and the
intensity of interactions between captors and captives lessens. The
plot conflicts become softer and more ambiguous as we get deeper
and deeper into the novel.

Bel Canto progresses, we find romance budding in strange,
unexpected places. The Japanese executive, Katsumi Hosokawa,
whose presence in the country had set off the hostage-taking,
pursues a decorously slow courtship with the celebrated soprano—a
love affair all the more open-ended due to his inability to speak
English and Coss’s ignorance of Japanese. The translator Gen
Watanabe, who knows a dozen or so languages, might be able to
help. But he soon finds that his services are constantly in demand.
Everyone, it seems, needs the help of his interpretation skills, and
this soft-spoken young man, who normally stands on the outside of
events, finds himself drawn into virtually all aspects of the unfolding
situation. In a Capulets-and-Montagues subplot, he falls in love with
Carmen, a young girl who is part of the terrorist group.

With a nice touch of irony, Patchett sets up another seemingly
extraneous thematic twist involving a Latin American television
soap opera that almost all of the parties in this story like to watch.
How peculiar to see terrorists anxious to get to the TV in time to see
the latest episode of this banal and tawdry program. Yet to some
extent, the developments around them in this house under siege
move from the operatic to the soap-operatic as well.

Everyone—both the readers and characters—are lulled into a false
sense of peace and security by these proceedings. Yet this stand-off
between government and terrorists cannot continue forever. When
the final break happens it catches everyone by surprise. Just when
the reader concludes that the conventions of the action-and-
suspense novel no longer apply to
Bel Canto . . . is more or less when
they take over the story.

This deep book works on many levels. Patchett masterfully handles
a large cast of characters, bringing each one to life, and giving ample
space to various player’s quirks and foibles. Few recent novels do a
better job of creating a true ensemble piece. Also a profound cross-
cultural savvy permeates the book, but this novel rises above
melting pot clichés—Patchett digs deeply into her international
assortment of hostages and hostage-takers and reaches some
universal truths that you won’t find spelled on their passports.

The term
bel canto can be translated as "beautiful singing," but in
practice it refers to a style of vocal delivery marked by a smooth
continuity of presentation and a controlled sustaining of the melodic
phrases. Ann Patchett's novel
Bel Canto stands out for these same
qualities. Starting with a dramatic situation that almost every other
writer would ornament with fisticuffs and high drama, Patchett finds
and develops a luminescence and grace which she maintains for the
duration of this artful and exquisite book. Beautiful singing, indeed.
The New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
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