Bel Canto (novel)
||This article possibly contains original research. (March 2013)|
Cover of the first edition of Bel Canto (2001)
|Cover artist||Elizabeth Ackerman, Echos/Nonstock|
|Media type||Print (Paperback and Hardback) & AudioBook (Cassette)|
Bel Canto is a 2001 novel by American author Ann Patchett, published by Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. It was awarded both the Orange Prize for Fiction and PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. It was placed on several top book lists, including Amazon's Best Books of the Year (2001).
Based on the Lima Crisis, this book is about a group of terrorists who hold high executives and people of high political standing hostage. It explores how the terrorists and hostages cope with living in a house together for several months. Many of the characters form unbreakable bonds of friendship, while some fall in love.
Set in an unspecified South American country, the story begins at a birthday party thrown at the country's vice presidential home. The party is thrown for Katsumi Hosokawa, the visiting chairman of a large Japanese electronics company called Nansei. Performing is a famous American soprano, Roxane Coss.
Near the end of the party, members of a terrorist organization break into the house looking for the President. When it is discovered that the President did not attend the party, the terrorist group decides to take the entire party hostage.
After determining they have too many hostages, the terrorists decide to release all of the hostages except those they deem most important and most likely to receive a large ransom. This includes Hosokawa, Roxane, and the translator Gen.
Two major romantic relationships develop as the standoff drags on and serve as the backdrop to the rest of the story. The first is between Roxane Coss and Katsumi Hosokawa. Hosokawa is one of Roxane's biggest fans and he attended the party because Roxane was going to be singing. When they are placed in the house together, they develop a deep bond, even though they do not speak each other's language and thus cannot communicate verbally. The second relationship is between Gen Watanabe and the young terrorist Carmen. They must keep their love a secret because Carmen is forbidden to have relationships with a hostage. The two lovers meet in the china closet every night to practice Carmen's reading and eventually to make love.
At the end of the novel, the government breaks into the house and kills all the terrorists. All of the hostages are freed except for Mr. Hosokawa, who dies in the struggle. The novel ends some time after the crisis; we learn that Gen and Roxane were married in Italy.
Katsumi Hosokawa is the founder and chairman of Nansei, the largest electronics corporation in Japan. It is in his honor that the initial birthday party is held that the hostages attend and that the terrorists invade. He is married with two daughters. A workaholic, his greatest love has been opera music since attending a performance with his father as a child. He fell in love with Roxane's voice before he fell in love with her person, and the host country's government bribes him into visiting by booking her to sing at the party. He has a strong bond with his young translator Gen, who always anticipates his needs. He speaks no Spanish and must use Gen for all communication in the host country, though during the hostage period he resolve to learn ten new words every day. He falls in love with Roxane, but knows their relationship can only last for the duration of the standoff. He is gunned down in the final scenes by the soldiers of the host county, in his attempt to save Carmen.
Roxane Coss is an internationally renowned American soprano. She is invited to perform at the party because the host country wanted to convince Mr. Hosokawa to attend the party. In her late thirties, she is a petite woman with dyed blonde hair. While not conventionally gorgeous, she possesses a rare charisma; every man in attendance is in love with her to some extent because of her ethereal singing voice. She is detained when all the other women are freed during the first few days. At first a prima donna who sets herself apart from the rest of the guests, she eventually begins to bond with the others when she receives a box of musical scores and begins singing to them every morning. She is especially touched by her relationships with Mr. Hosokawa, with whom she falls in love; Gen, with whom she forms a strong bond and eventually marries; Carmen, who sleeps in her bed, braids her hair, and comforts her; and Cesar, another young terrorist with a gifted singing voice whom she begins tutoring.
Gen Watanabe is Mr. Hosokawa's translator and assistant. A quiet, sensitive and gifted young man who speaks all the major languages and many minor ones; he divides the languages he speaks into "extremely fluent, very fluent, fluent, passable and could read". He is usually at the center of the action of the novel, since most of the multinational characters communicate through him. He cares deeply for Mr. Hosokawa, and though the other characters rely on him, he feels different from the rest of the hostages because among them he is the only one, besides Father Arguedas, the priest, who is not fabulously wealthy and powerful. He has only slept with three women in his life. He begins tutoring Carmen when she asks him to teach her how to read and write in Spanish and English, and they begin meeting each night in the china closet, reading and eventually making love. When she leads him outside to the garden one night, he later regrets not walking into the street and taking her back to Japan with him. When the authorities come, he plans to tell them she is his wife to save her. Gen eventually marries Roxane and moves to Italy with her.
Carmen is the terrorist Gen loves. Carmen remains incognito in the guise of a male terrorist for the first part of the novel. The leader of the organization, General Benjamin, notices what a beautiful young woman she has become and notes that, "had she been this pretty before, he never would have let her sign up". A Quechua-speaking Indian girl from the jungle, she often prays to Saint Rose of Lima. As he teaches her, Gen realizes that she is as smart as any of the women he knew from university, and she loves him deeply. She knows that after the standoff ends, she might never see him again, and together they build something unique and rare. In the ultimate shootout, she is gunned down before Gen can get to her. In the newspaper articles after the fact, there is no record of her ever existing.
The setting is an unspecified country in South America.
Most of the book takes place in the Vice President's house. The house has two floors. On the first floor is the living room, which is a large space where the hostages gathered for the party. The room was decorated with all the most important artwork and was cleaned to the best of its ability because they were trying to convince Mr. Hosokawa and the other businessmen to invest in their country. Also on the first floor is the dining room, the kitchen, and the china closet where Gen and Carmen meet nightly. The first floor also contains a guest suite, which is where General Alfredo sleeps.
On the second floor is a variety of rooms. In a hallway near the kitchen is a narrow and twisting staircase that leads to the servants' quarters, which contains a door to the nursery. The nursery opens up to the second floor, and at the third door past the bathroom is Roxane's room. Mr. Hosokawa takes this path to see Roxane at night and Carmen takes the route in reverse to meet Gen.
Surrounding the house is a garden with a ten-foot wall. There are two known ways to enter the garden. One is through the kitchen and onto the back porch while the other is through the front door and beyond a stone walkway. The garden was prepared for the party and contained many beautiful plants. However, while the crisis was going on, no one has been able to tend to the garden. By the time the hostages were allowed to enter the garden, the grass was high enough to brush against the people's calves. The garden contains many plants, including jasmine vines and evening lilies. In the garden there is a curve in the wall that makes a pocket of grass and slender trees. It is impossible to see this spot from the house, and it is here that Gen and Carmen make love for the first time.
Opera is often used in the story to draw the characters together. Roxane, one of the main characters, is a world famous opera singer. Ann Patchett has stated that the character of Roxanne was modeled on Karol Bennett, an acquaintance of hers who was an opera singer. However, since she was not familiar with Karol Bennett's voice, she listened to recordings by the famous American soprano Renée Fleming and imagined Roxane Coss as possessing Fleming's voice. During the terrorists and hostages' time in the house, they are forced to think and reflect, and the thing they most reflect on is Roxane's music. Her music brings the terrorists and hostages together as one people to admire her voice. Even the name of the novel suggests opera, as the name "Bel Canto" is an operatic term meaning "beautiful singing." The term has come to refer to a particular type of Italian opera, popular in the early nineteenth century. The style is known for its lyricism and vocal virtuosity, and is best represented by the works of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini.
Before the characters entered the house they were individuals that did not know much about each other. For example, Kato was an excellent piano player, but none of his co-workers knew that he played that instrument. By the end of the novel, the hostages were friends and even lovers. For example, Roxane and Mr. Hosokawa first met in the house, but by the end of the novel, they were lovers.
The hostages and terrorists also develop a sense of community among each other. At the beginning of the novel, the hostages lived in fear of the terrorists  while the terrorists were only concerned with getting the President and leaving the house. By the end of the novel, the hostages and terrorists are connected with each other. Gen and Carmen develop sexual relations, Cesar becomes Roxane's opera student and Ishmael pictures himself as the Vice-President's son. The hostages and terrorists learn to create a community within the house and live together as a community.
Writing the book
Patchett was inspired by the Lima Crisis when she watched the crisis on the news. The opera in the story was added when she thought how operatic the crisis was. However, Patchett did not know anything about opera prior to writing the book. To build a knowledge of opera, Patchett read books about opera, attended local theatre performances and listened to opera whenever she could.
Patchett has stated that writing her books has been a progression. She always wanted to write with an omniscient third person narrator, but stated that she always went back to a narrative structure she could handle. She was pleased when she was able to write this book in the narrative she wanted.
The basis of this book was a prologue in Gen's perspective where he told us that this book is about how he met his wife. However, Patchett's mentor Elizabeth McCracken told her that the prologue was not needed, so Patchett took it out. Also, Patchett's editor wanted her to take out three lines. One of the lines was about the plants growing a half-inch over the course of an hour. Patchett insisted on keeping the line and changed the length to a half-centimeter.
The novel has been adapted into an opera by the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
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