Back in late March 2020 I was on a kick to think of books that would be good to read during the pandemic, specifically under the shelter-in-place conditions. A Gentleman in Moscow immediately came to mind, reviewed earlier, as did Bocaccio’s The Decameron, which I don’t own, so won’t review, but read parts of in college. Then I remembered Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett, a favorite novel of mine that has only dimmed a bit in favorite-ness because I have liked so few of Patchett’s other novels.
The book is set in an unnamed South American country in that country’s Vice President’s mansion where a large group of international businessmen and government officials and their wives has gathered to celebrate the birthday of a Japanese businessman, Mr. Hosokawa. Terrorists crawl through the ducting of the building to take the group hostage, on the knowledge that the country’s president would be in attendance, but they are disappointed. Still, they make do with the Vice President and a famous female opera singer, Roxane Coss, the ne plus ultra soprano and drop dead favorite of Hosokawa who has been hired to sing for the party.
The plot is a wonderfully sparse tragic-comedy frame for some very memorable characters. The Vice President became a favorite of mine. Extremely short in stature (and thus chosen as the VP for the slightly less short President), the Vice President is a humble man, devoted to his family, courageous in an everyman sort of way, and, as it turns out, a fantastic host. The way he cares for the building under his charge is particularly charming to me; he is continually setting down ashtrays under lit cigarettes and coasters under sweaty glasses or cleaning up messes from the carpet and develops domestic skills he never knew he had, since either his wife or his servants had always handled those things. He doesn’t come off as OCD so much as responsible and respectful and as a great steward of beauty. Since the President skipped the party in order to stay home and watch his “tele nova”–the south of the border version of a soap opera–it’s clear that the shorter man would have been by far the better President. Humility, devotion, courage, cleanliness, respect, responsibility and an appreciation of beauty–what this American wouldn’t give for a President with those qualities!
Mr. Hosokawa also has these qualities. He is an aficionado and great appreciator of music, especially opera, but is very humble about the fact that he neither plays an instrument nor sings. He also speaks only Japanese and has a translator, Gen, who speaks at least seven languages including Russian. Hosokawa is also very humble about his lack of language skills and relies heavily on Gen, though as his relationship with Roxane Coss grows, he begins to be able to communicate with her non-verbally and with a very abbreviated English vocabulary.
When I read about Gen the translator, it is as if bracingly fresh air comes off of the pages. He is so smart and organized and facile with language that it even makes this reader feel smarter and more energetic. He as the translator and the Vice President as the host with the most act as bridges between all of the other characters, whether hostage or terrorist. He also exhibits the aforementioned wonderful qualities of character, but as he begins to fall in love with one of the teenage girl terrorists, we realize he must be several years if not more than a decade younger than Hosokawa even though he is so accomplished.
The terrorists are less well-developed, but they are not stereotypes and several are given interesting personalities. General Benjamin, with his painful and ugly skin condition, realizes what a mess he has gotten himself into and it is obvious he has a decent, if not good and large, heart. Carmen, Gen’s love interest, is a sponge for knowledge, a perfect mentee for Gen. Beatriz is lazy and insolent and much more of a tomboy suited for the teen terrorist role.
There are a lot of great details that tickle me because I organize houses for a living and am a clean freak. For example, the terrorists put their boots on the beautifully hand-embroidered bedcovers. This gives me an anxiety I have to chuckle about, but it is right up there with the topiary animals in The Shining (not in my library but I loved it) on the anxiety scale.
Roxane Coss, since she is a valuable hostage, is not released with the rest of the women near the beginning of the ordeal. The fact that the women are all wives and girlfriends and none are businesswomen or government officials themselves is bizarre given the book was written in 2001. It can’t be just that the book takes place in mucho macho South America, because the gathering is international. So it was just a choice on Patchett’s part in order to make Roxane Cost the sole female hostage. Patchett based the story on the 1996-1997 hostage crisis in Lima, Peru and so wrote it before the September 11 terrorist events that happened the year the book was actually published.
I’m a sucker for magic realism done well, as in Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose Love in the Time of Cholera is another good shelter-in-place read, and OMG, Haruki Murakami, brilliant to the max although in my opinion he needs to move on already. Patchett is known for this technique, although she goes nowhere near as far with the magical as either Marquez or Murakami do. I find that in Bel Canto there is just a perfect sprinkling of magic to make the reading incredibly pleasurable. It’s like a beautiful dream, and even General Benjamin’s shingles don’t mar the beauty.