by Ann Patchett

 

In the novel Bel Canto we are introduced to a diverse cast of characters:

Mr. Hosokawa is the CEO of a large Japanese electronics company.

Roxane Coss is a famous American opera singer.

Gen Watanabe is Mr. Hosokawa’s translator. He is Japanese and speaks many languages.

Reuben Iglesias is the Vice President of the host country in South America.

The Generals are the leaders of a band of terrorists.

Carmen, Cesar, and Ishmael are members of the terrorist group.

Joachim Messner is a Red Cross negotiator. He is Swiss and vacationing in South America.

Foreign diplomats and businessmen.

Other terrorists, all very young, some only children.

 

In a South American country Mr. Hosokawa is being wined and dined in the home of the Vice President. It is Mr. Hosokawa’s birthday and a lavish party has been planned. There are diplomats and businesspeople from many different countries around the world in attendance. The South Americans are hoping to persuade Mr. Hosokawa to locate a factory in their country that will provide jobs and a much-needed boost to their economy. As an incentive for Mr. Hosokawa to make the trip, they have invited the acclaimed opera star Roxane Coss to perform. Mr. Hosokawa is an avid opera fan and especially loves opera as performed by Ms. Coss. He has no intention of locating a factory in this country but he is there, because Ms. Coss is there. The stellar performance by Ms. Coss has all her listeners in thrall. The evening has been a great success, and is winding down when suddenly the Vice President’s home is invaded by a band of terrorists. Their plan is to kidnap the President and hold him hostage until their demands are met. Unfortunately for them, the President is not there. He stayed home to watch his favorite soap opera on television.

It may seem that I have given away too much of the story, but I haven’t. This action all takes place in the first couple of pages. It is what happens after this that makes up the story.

Ann Patchett, using magical realism, weaves a tale of love and friendship, compassion and understanding. The story truly becomes a beautiful song. It all centers on the power of music, and how the strength of the music can draw people together and make them see things in a new way. Because the group of hostages and terrorists is so diverse, music becomes the common language that they all can understand. The world that exists inside the Vice President’s residence is totally unconnected to the outside world. As days turn to weeks and weeks turn to months, those inside begin to settle into their new cloistered world. They find ways to spend their time that they would not have found outside. They interact with people they would not have met under ordinary circumstances. They have time to think about what they truly cherish. They get a glimpse of the truth that they all have more in common than just music. Over time they begin to treasure their experience together and believe they can always live in this world.

Only one person exists in both worlds. He is Joachim Messner, the Red Cross worker. He was just a vacationer when the hostage situation developed, but he was there, so he was drafted into the position of negotiator, the go-between for the hostages and the government. He is drawn to the fantasy world inside the mansion, but is all too aware of the real world outside the walls.

This is not a typical terrorist/hostage story. It is not action-packed in any traditional sense. The action is mostly internal within the hearts and minds of the hostages and their captors. Because of the fantastic elements, the reader must be willing to suspend belief and enter a world where music and beauty and love exert their power over hatred, and misunderstanding, and evil.