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The New Canon: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

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The New Canon is a regular feature, contributed by Ted Gioia, focusing on great works of fiction published since 1985. These books represent the finest literature of the current era, and are gaining recognition as the new classics of our time. In this installment of The New Canon, Gioia looks at Bel Canto by Ann Patchett.

A Third World terrorist group holds hostage a prominent group of politicians, executives and a famous American soprano who had the bad fortune to be entertaining the wrong audience at the wrong time. Government authorities settle in for a long stand-off, and attempts to negotiate the release of the hostages falter in the face of untenable demands. A bloody confrontation seems likely.

Sound familiar? We have all seen similar set-ups in countless Hollywood action films. But Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto will defy every expectation you bring to this rich book. Her story has nothing in common with Die Hard or Air Force One or Speed or the many other good-versus-evil stories that fill up the racks at Blockbuster.

Every stereotype of the genre is over-turned – first of all, because Ann Patchett has no interest in writing an action novel, or even a suspense novel. But also because her most interesting developments take place in the inner lives of her characters. Imagine Henry James tackling a Tom Clancy scenario, with a dose of Lost in Translation added in for good measure, and you will get some idea of the piquant flavor of this odd, but endearing, book.

The reader soon learns that the “good guys” aren’t quite so good as one would like. And the “bad guys” aren’t so bad. And before Bel Canto concludes, the roles have become entirely reversed, with the traditional heroes falling short of the villains. This goes beyond the famous Stockholm Syndrome, in which hostages begin to sympathize with their captors. In Bel Canto, the terrorists are gradually co-opted by their victims – especially by the singing of Roxane Coss, the opera star whose brief visit to South America to perform for a private audience at the Vice President’s home now stretches into an indefinite stay under house arrest.

Coss enlists one of the other hostages into accompanying her on the piano as she continues her daily regimen of singing. The sounds of her enchanting voice contribute to softening and harmonizing the house where terrorists and victims are holding out. She eventually discovers that one of the young terrorists has a promising singing voice, and begins teaching him.

Something magical and unexpected happens as this plot develops. Based on all our previous experiences with stories of this sort, we anticipate that tensions will rise and that the narrative will gain momentum as the tale progresses. Yet Patchett daringly moves in the exact opposite direction. The pace becomes languorous and the intensity of interactions between captors and captives lessens. The plot conflicts become softer and more ambiguous as we get deeper and deeper into the novel.

As Bel Canto progresses, we find romance budding in strange, unexpected places. The Japanese executive, Katsumi Hosokawa, whose presence in the country had set off the hostage-taking, pursues a decorously slow courtship with the celebrated soprano—a love affair all the more open-ended due to his inability to speak English and Coss’s ignorance of Japanese. The translator Gen Watanabe, who knows a dozen or so languages, might be able to help. But he soon finds that his services are constantly in demand. Everyone, it seems, needs the help of his interpretation skills, and this soft-spoken young man, who normally stands on the outside of events, finds himself drawn into virtually all aspects of the unfolding situation. In a Capulets-and-Montagues subplot, he falls in love with Carmen, a young girl who is part of the terrorist group.

With a nice touch of irony, Patchett sets up another seemingly extraneous thematic twist involving a Latin American television soap opera that almost all of the parties in this story like to watch. How peculiar to see terrorists anxious to get to the TV in time to see the latest episode of this banal and tawdry program. Yet to some extent, the developments around them in this house under siege move from the operatic to the soap-operatic as well.

Everyone — both the readers and characters — are lulled into a false sense of peace and security by these proceedings. Yet this stand-off between government and terrorists cannot continue forever. When the final break happens it catches everyone by surprise. Just when the reader concludes that the conventions of the action-and-suspense novel no longer apply to Bel Canto… is more or less when they take over the story.

This deep book works on many levels. Patchett masterfully handles a large cast of characters, bringing each one to life, and giving ample space to various player’s quirks and foibles. Few recent novels do a better job of creating a true ensemble piece. Also a profound cross-cultural savvy permeates the book, but this novel rises above melting pot clichés – Patchett digs deeply into her international assortment of hostages and hostage-takers and reaches some universal truths that you won’t find spelled on their passports.

The term bel canto can be translated as "beautiful singing," but in practice it refers to a style of vocal delivery marked by a smooth continuity of presentation and a controlled sustaining of the melodic phrases. Ann Patchett's novel Bel Canto stands out for these same qualities. Starting with a dramatic situation that almost every other writer would ornament with fisticuffs and high drama, Patchett finds and develops a luminescence and grace which she maintains for the duration of this artful and exquisite book. Beautiful singing, indeed.

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