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Bel Canto

Ann Patchett
In Print
Perennial (2001)

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This entry created 11 June 2021. Last revised on 11 June 2021.

1,170 hits since 12 Jun 2021
©1994-2024 Bill Armintrout
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Bel Canto
Rating: gold star gold star gold star gold star gold star gold star gold star gold star gold star no star (9.00)

318 pages.

Having watched the movie, and having been not entirely impressed, I decided to go back and read the award-winning novel to see what more there might be.

The first thing to be noted is that Ann Patchett is indeed a talented writer, a pleasure to read, putting us inside the heads of her characters whether they are being moved by opera, pondering the miracle of confession, or falling deeply in love. Her style as a narrator is chatty, so that the reader is always aware that a story is being told, with a narrative voice that drops hints about the ending, enjoys telling us about her characters, and maintains some humor despite the grim topic of coercion and imprisonment.

And, since I'm coming to the novel from having watched the film first, let's note the differences: Roxane Coss, the opera diva taken hostage, is in her 30s in the novel (the actress was in her 50s); this forces different endings between novel and movie. In the movie, the terrorists are led by Commandante Benjamin, a handsome man who was formerly a college professor, and his assistant, Commandante Alfredo; in the novel, General Benjamin is scarred with facial shingles, is assisted by two other generals, who are stubborn and blind to reality. Nobody is shot by the terrorists in the novel, but there are many more hostages in a much larger palace.

Note that is is 'Roxane' in the novel, except on the back cover; in the movie credits, it is 'Roxanne'.

The premise is the same: Japanese industrialist Hosokawa has been induced to visit an unspecified Latin American country (obviously Peru) because renowned opera singer Roxane Coss will be performing for his birthday party at the vice-presidential mansion. The government hopes that Hosokawa will build a factory in their poor nation. As Roxanne finishes her concert, however, terrorists seize control of the palace. They had hoped to capture the president, but he stayed home to watch his favorite soap opera.

The terrorist leaders, having failed to capture the President, seem at a loss what to do next, and settle into a lengthy stalemate exchanging demands with the government while releasing excess hostages. Scenes in the movie suggest the terrorists are communists motivated to rescue family and friends from jail; in the novel, the terrorist leaders have no clear aims or ideology, while their teenage solders are recruited from poor Quechua Indians.

As the hostage crisis drags on for weeks, both terrorists and hostages begin to lose touch with the outside world. Roxane eventually insists she must practice her singing. Her accompanist has died (an entire subplot missing from the movie), but it turns out one of Mr. Hosokawa's executives is a talented pianist. This turns out to be a pivotal point in softening the terrorists' control over the hostages.

Similarly, when the government starts providing raw food instead of prepared meals, the hostages must cook meals, but since they cannot be trusted with knives, certain of the terrorists must assist them (including two 'boys' who have turned out to be girls: Carmen and Beatriz, and the youngest terrorist, Ishmael). This too works to break down the barriers between terrorists and hostages.

A key figure through all of this is Gen, Hosokawa's translator/assistant. He is needed by everyone: to interpret for the Three Generals (they use him as a secretary), to interpret for the Swiss Red Cross negotiator, to interpret for the many hostage groups (Russians, Greeks, Japanese, French, Spanish). Beautiful 17-year-old terrorist Carmen, a Quechuan Indian, secretly asks him to teach her to read and write in Spanish.

Several characters barely visible in the movie have rich subplots in the novel. Vice President Ruben, mocked and pistol-whipped by the terrorists, regresses into being the 'host', cleaning the residence and eventually gardening; Thibault, the French ambassador, yearns for his wife; Fyodorov, one of the Russians, has fallen in love with Roxane's singing; Father Arguedas has a deep role as a young, dedicated priest and an opera lover who also understands the poor; Beatriz, a selfish, TV-watching terrorist teenager who starts to give up her sins.

And, of course, the love story between Hosokawa and Roxane, and between Gen and Carmen.

Then everything comes to the grim end which the narrator has warned us about, with a few key details different from the movie.

Can you wargame it? Unlike the movie, the terrorists in the movie are 'reasonable men' who are never going to harm the hostages. The leaders know their situation is hopeless. The soldiers are disciplined but unsupervised; they care for their weapons, then leave them or sleep on duty. You would find more scenario inspiration in the so-called 'Japanese embassy hostage crisis' of 1996, which loosely served as an inspiration for this novel: that was more of a fight.

There is some sexual content that might be unsuitable for children (including a terrorist with erection problems); there is also description of gun violence.

A very touching book, well written, covering love and music and religion. Recommended. Much superior to the movie.

Reviewed by Personal logo Editor in Chief Bill The Editor of TMP Fezian.