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Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto: Praying for Nothing

July 13, 2012

Ann Patchett (source: author website)

What manner of writer is this, who can make a novel gripping even though we know what’s going to happen, whose characters move us deeply at the same time as we are aware of their creator manipulating our feelings through her deceptively direct prose?

Ann Patchett is a magician. At last year’s Brisbane Writers Festival she read from her latest novel, State of Wonder, terrifying us with the story of a deadly encounter with an anaconda on the Amazon River. In her earlier novel, Bel Canto, she makes us love terrorists.

Bel Canto is inspired by the 1996 Japanese Embassy Hostage Crisis in Lima, Peru. The novel is set in an unnamed Latin American state. Members of a revolutionary movement storm a reception, but the raid does not go according to plan, and they end up holding many of the guests hostage for months. The book chronicles the deepening relationships between the hostages and their captors during this time.

This is not the same as Stockholm Syndrome, where the emotional bond that hostages feel for their captors is related to a cycle of abuse. Patchett shows how a different pattern could emerge, a genuine community where people develop closer ties by sharing the tasks of daily life, eventually becoming friends, father figures, teachers, students, mentors and lovers as the boundary between hostages and captors breaks down.

Two key characters are the main drivers of this community development: Gen, translator to the Japanese businessman who was the guest of honour at the reception, and Roxanne Coss, a world famous opera singer who had been engaged to sing at the reception in order to induce the businessman, her biggest fan, to attend.

The reception guests are divided from each other and from their captors by language barriers. But Gen is fluent in many languages, and so plays the same role as the Babel fish in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – he enables people who don’t share a language to talk to each other. Lyric Soprano Roxanne Coss performs a similar role, unifying the community through song: “She sang as if she was saving the life of every person in the room.”

In the hands of a lesser writer this would have been unconvincing, and, indeed, whenever I was away from the book and from Patchett’s spell, doubts would bubble up: how is it possible that everyone was rapt by Roxanne’s singing? Surely there was somebody among the hostages or captors that hated opera and was being pushed over the edge by hearing hours of it every day for months? The adoration of Roxanne Coss gives the story a tinge of magic realism, appropriate to the South American setting. But once I was back in the book, Patchett, like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was able to convince me that the impossible was happening.

As the story unfolds, and we grow attached to the characters, what we want to happen comes into conflict with what we know will happen, and this is the source of the tension: hope that the inevitable can be avoided. One of the terrorists, a young woman, prays hard: “What she prayed for was nothing. She prayed that God would look on them and see the beauty of their existence and leave them alone.”

This is what the reader wants, while knowing it is impossible. The spell, for hostages, captors and reader, must end.

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