Bel Canto

I just read a piece of fiction by Ann Patchett titled Bel Canto (which means “beautiful singing” in Italian).

This book won some pretty prestigious prizes and its a sophisticated novel that is sincerely trying to be a work of art. I think it largely succeeds, but I have some gripes, as I inevitably do.

The story is about an elite dinner party that is being held in a never-named South American country. The guest of honor is a Japanese businessman named Mr. Hosokawa (I don’t think we ever find out his first name, and this is in keeping with a refined and businesslike attitude) who is being wooed into investing in the country. The secret though is that he has no intention of investing and has only come because the party planners were able to book Roxane Coss, an opera singer of phenomenal talent and beauty, who Hosokawa idolizes.

Anyway, as the night is coming to a close, terrorists take over the house where the party is being held. Oddly though, it turns out most of the terrorists are kids and that the only adults are the three “generals” who are revolutionaries and want to overthrow the government. The entirety of the book takes place within the walls of the house. As their captivity drags on, many of the characters grow as people. One character learns to sing, another finds love, and still another discovers his love of chess.

The language in this book is beautiful and there are many themes that are nicely and subtly explored; this is definitely forceful literature. For example, the prisoners are a very international group and so don’t speak the same language. Mr. Hosokawa’s translator, who can speak many, many languages, is forced to facilitate almost all conversation as the terrorists and captives slowly start to find common ground and form bonds of friendship. So there are explorations about what communication is and ultimately a lesson about how words might not even be that important for communication (people in this book learn to relate through activities like music, chess, and soccer).

The main complaint I have with this book is that its just so insistently high-cultured. Everything is about opera, or chess, or romance languages, and the descriptions of beauty and love in this book are endless. Now, to be fair, the descriptions, metaphors, and other comparisons are very nice, but it get tiring to hear about the sparking and shimmering beauty and culture that surrounds these characters at all times. With all the literature going on, the terrorist fade into the background as set pieces that are there to limit the freedom of movement for everyone, when I was hoping that the relationship of stress and coercion would been examined a little more closely. Instead, all I get is how everyone is falling in love with everyone else and meaning is being found in everyone’s life left and right.

Anyway, this book presents life, even when one is captured by terrorists, as a non stop aesthetic explosion in which every detail is saturated with culture and meaning. Call me old fashioned, but I was hoping for a little struggle and pain, just to keep it real.


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