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Finished Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto

In the tradition of posting books that I have finished on this site, I thought I would do the traditional thing and post a quick bit of text for Bel Canto.

I will copy from my book journal (where quotes and analysis are written longhand).

….In which revolutionaries seize control of a Latin kleptocracy’s grand ball planning to ransom the president.

The revolutionaries are three adult generals served by a children’s army.

The guests are all the wealthy and ambassadorial class. Most attended the party so as to hear the guest of honor, soprano Roxanne Coss, sing.

After the seizure of the president fails, for he remained home to watch a soap opera (think GW Bush + Fujimori), they are prisoners to the paramiltary siege. In this time relationships between the prisoners develop. More interesting is the dynamic between the revolutionaries and the hostages.

While the dynamic starts with discipline and confrontation, absent the social pressures of modern class-induction, the longer the class definers are away, the stronger the quality and deeper the depth of the interaction between captive and captor.

The book works very finely with human questions of desire and love. many characters ,realizing that contact with their loved ones shall soon end ruminate on love and relationships. One couple, she about to be ejected form the scenario asks what memento of my love could be accepted until reunited? An earring, perhaps?

The plot is much hlike that of “Lost”, the characters, united in bizarre predicament move through time with odd flashbacks detailing the string of coincidences that put them in the hostage situation: why this country, why that night, that time?

One of the most interesting twists is the death of the soprano’s accompianist. He dies for want of insulin while a bio-pharma CEO thinks of the free samples at his office. It seems to put the reader to thinking of “Why can’t he have that? He is of the appropriate earnings base to afford that specialized, synthesized sugar-catalyzing drug?”

Yet this serves as a parallel to the captors' poverty in the Latin jungle. Why must there be abject poverty when the wealthy / ambassadorial class lives so richly? So richly that they could pay for the world’s greatest soprano to come to their country in an attempt to lure Japanese investment?

His death inspires Roxanne to think: “The kind of love that offers its life so easily, so stupidly, is alas the love that is not returned.”

It is this emotional setting that opens up (further) the self-examination that is the heart of the remainder ofd the story. The stories of the hostages seem to move between Mersault’s guillotine-day celebration of life and Frankl-like meditations on find ing beauty in all circumstances (The vice-persident enjoys the pleasant slant of sunlight playing about the floor while hostage (p89)).

Over time ,absent the human contact with the outside world (which increasingly starts to look hostile and corrupt), their contact with one another deeepens and changes. This applies to the inter-hostage dynamic as well as that between the hostage and captor.

Underlying conversations tend to skew to love (or class) often.

“[The declaration of love] is a gift. There. Something to give you. If I had a necklace or a book of paintings I would give you that instead. I would give you that in addition to my love.”

“Then you are too generous with gifts.”

“…Perhaps…But…I hear you sing every day … and what I feel in my heart is love. There is no point in not telling you that… Why should I carry this with me to the other world? Why not give to you what is yours (221)?

or…

“…all he wanted now was…the right to lie with his head in his wife’s lap, his face turned up to the bottom of her sweater.”

But this genuine relating to one another is anathema to the world “outside” which seeks to tunnel-in and end this “reality camp.” Such real interhuman discussion, appreciation, understanding, simply cannot be borne in the capitalist world outside. The longer this experiment lasts the more its light casts a hollow pale on the illusions of the world outside. Therefore this project must end.

And thus the story ends: leaving the survivors reflecting that it is love and beauty which assure them that they can continue on in life. Perhaps it is the right to beauty and eudaimonia that was absent in the lives of the revolutionaries. Perhaps in that time of the captivity they were able to live as the wealthy, to enjoy pure beauty.


I was struck by how much this operation reminded me of Burning Man. Perhaps it is wise that that experiment knows to be temporary - becoming too fixed on the map is to invite active destruction by the elements without.

Patchett’s language is beautiful and, even if the tale sounds preachy (it’s not delivered in such a manner) her skill with assembling beautiful, elegant sentences makes the story a real joy. The point of view of the narrator (omniscient, third person) is wry and dispassionate which makes an interesting counterpoint to the fevered tension found within the captivity camp.