Ann Patchett: Bel Canto

 The opening sentence: the kiss. The accompanist kisses Roxanne. We immediately form an impression. They are emotionally involved. We don’t realise the significance of the lights going out. We are wrong about everything we have assumed.

And the plot, the story. Is there really a story? It’s pretty rudimentary. Terrorist group bungles attempt to kidnap the President of a South American country. What else is there, apart from that? There are minor developments. Roxane, the diva, the singer, sleeps with Mr Hokosawa, whose birthday party she has come to entertain. Gen, Mr Hokosawa’s assistant and interpreter teaches one of the terrorists, Carmen, to read, and makes love to her. It’s like a Henry James novel, Portrait of a Lady, or a Turgenev novel. It isn’t the plot that’s important, it’s the interaction between the characters, the portrayal of the characters, through each other’s eyes, and our developing understanding of the characters that makes this book.

The arias that Roxane sings.  Presumably the aria from Rusalka that she sings at the dinner is ‘O silver moon’.  I don’t know Rusalka very well, and I couldn’t remember it. I found it on the internet, and then I recognised it.  But the scene hadn’t moved me when I read the book, because I couldn’t hear it in my head.  This reminded me of the scene in Zoe Heller’s novel, The Believers, in which thousands of admirers are packed into the New York Episcopal Cathedral for the memorial service for Joe Litvinoff, a left-wing lawyer, singing the Internationale. That was moving because I could hear them singing, in the ragged way that thousands of people do sing these great anthems. Arise, ye workers from your slumbers. Like football crowds singing Jerusalem. And later, she sings O Mio Babbino Caro, Oh my beloved father, which everyone knows, but that didn’t move me either.  Why was that?  The boy terrorist, Cesar, sings Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore, non feci mai, and I couldn’t recall that either until I found it on the internet. I think the problem is that the music that she sings is from the great 19th century romantic operas, not really my music.  If she had sung the aria that the Countess sings in the Marriage of Figaro, Dove sono i bei momenti – I remember his love so tender, which would have resonated with so many of the thoughts in this book of husbands and wives about each other, I’m sure that would have moved me, because while I was reading the book I would be hearing the music.  But Roxane wouldn’t have sung that: it wouldn’t have been in her repertoire.  She is an exponent of the 19th century bel canto style of dramatic opera, not the 18th century bel canto of Mozart and Handel of reflective pure lines. This is a problem about using music in a novel to convey a scene.  It all depends on the reader knowing the music, and knowing it well enough to be able to hear the music while reading the book. It’s not unique to music, of course.  Any reference, to another novel, to a historical event, depends on the reader sharing the knowledge.

Patchett often shows us what the characters are thinking, and this is interesting and often moving, and we learn more about their personalities. The vice-president’s thoughts about his wife and the servant Esmeralda show us what he is like, as well as his demeanour through the things he does. But there are two characters we learn very little about, and not much about what they are thinking. Roxane arranges for Hokosawa to go to her, and we are told how it is to be done, and see it being done, but we aren’t told why she does this. We are told why other people do what they do, and Hokosawa’s thoughts are often revealed. Roxana is, after all, a diva, and if the stories about Callas are true what Roxana did wasn’t very surprising. We do learn sometimes, as when Roxane is braiding Carmen’s hair: remarkable that there is comfort for Roxane that she has been detained in order to act the servant, Susanna, to Carmen, the Countess, and recalls the aria that the Countess sings “I remember his love so tender”.  The other character whose mind is seldom opened is Gen, and at one point Patchett writes that when Gen wasn’t translating, speaking for other people, he couldn’t find his own words. I don’t think this is a failing: I think Patchett did this deliberately

Perhaps the most moving thing is that you have just become used to the idea of growing relationships between the characters, between Mr Hokosawa and Roxane, Gen and Carmen, the vice president’s growing understanding of his wife and family and Esmeralda, the governess, and then you begin to realise that it is all going to end badly.  You don’t know how bad it will be. Everyone killed, both captors and hostages? A few deaths, the deserving surviving?  But who are the deserving? You keep hoping that Carmen and Gen will survive and have a life afterwards, but you have this fear that they won’t. If Thibault, a minor character who took over the cooking, had died, I would have been distraught. You really identify with the characters, and I identified with Thibault more than with any of the others.

It was a great pleasure to read this book.  The development of the relationships was done so well, so convincingly, and the developing understanding of some of the men, the vice president, Thibault, Mr Hokosawa about their absent wives was very moving. Perhaps all husbands should be forcibly incarcerated after twenty years of marriage or so in a group in which love affairs are developing, so that they can think about their own wives.

So, what did I think? Not a terribly high mark for plot, but for me the plot is a peg to hang the characters on. The characterisation was very good, I thought, and the lower level of character development for Gen and Roxane was a clever touch. How interesting that it is these two who come together at the end. Descriptive passages, very good: you really get a feel of what the house is like, and details of the kitchen, the clothes closet where Gen and Carmen meet becomes very familiar. The other, quite separate thing: did I like it; was I glad I had read it? (You can admire the writing, but not like the book.) Very much so. This was the second time I had read it, and I expect I shall read it again one day.

Many readers think that the epilogue, Gen and Roxane marrying, was a mistake, that it wouldn’t have happened. I just accepted it. People do such strange things.


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