In more ways than one, Bel Canto is about finding beauty in unexpected places. On the most obvious level of plot, Ann Patchett’s latest novel is about a group of (not very violent) Marxist rebels in an unnamed South American country who take over the vice-presidential palace during a glittering party. Strange and marvelous things start to happen once the rebels and their illustrious hostages, one of whom is a famous opera singer, get to know one another. On another level, Patchett has managed to find the material for a fantasy in a violent real-life event. (In December 1996, a group of Marxist rebels stormed the home of the Japanese ambassador to Peru while a gala celebration of the emperor’s birthday was in progress; after releasing most of the guests, the terrorists settled in with a few dozen hostages for four tense but weirdly quiet months until April 1997, when government commandos raided the ambassador’s house, freeing the remaining hostages and killing all of the rebels.)
But on a whole other level, Bel Canto is an unexpected transformation in Patchett’s writing. Faced with the incident that inspired this book, many novelists would focus on either the action – the takeover, the tense negotiations, the bloodily climactic raid – or the anguished politics of the situation. Patchett takes another, subtler route, weaving her story from the four months of forced cohabitation of the jungle guerillas and their prisoners. No surprise there: This is an author who’s always liked to throw odd groups of troubled characters together in confined spaces and see what happens. Her 1992 debut, The Patron Saint of Liars, was set in a home for unwed mothers; her 1994 follow-up, Taft, was about a black nightclub owner in Memphis who takes a pair of troubled white teenagers under his wing. In The Magician’s Assistant, the title character discovers that her late magician husband has another, secret family – and goes to live with them.
And yet although (or maybe because) the earlier books were competently written, well-meaning, and earnest, they always seemed somehow minor (the phrase “woman’s novel” comes to mind). In the new novel, the group of characters whom Patchett has chosen to assemble, which includes diplomats, political ideologues, priests, and artists, elevates the narrative to the level of allegory. The author has taken what could have been a variation on the Lord of the Flies scenario (a descent into primitive chaos after the onset of lawlessness) and fashions instead a “Lord of the Butterflies,” a dreamlike fable in which the impulses toward beauty and love are shown to be as irrepressible as the instincts for violence and destruction.
The ascent from chaos to culture that Patchett charts is a gradual, even languid one (at times, rather too languid.) Apart from the violence that frames the narrative – the rebels’ raid at the beginning and the government commandos’ raid at the end – much of this novel swims by in a hallucinatory mode. “We have done away with time,” a Russian diplomat gleefully declares as he and several other characters discard their watches. His comment reminds you that this is, in the end, a story that takes place out of real time. Out of real space too. The house in which the captives are being held is surrounded by a thick mist that cuts the inhabitants off from the outside world.
Despite its incremental pace, this story, like all fables, is one in which miraculous transformations take place. Katsumi Hosokawa, the buttoned-down tycoon whose birthday was being celebrated, turns out to be capable of great passion, embarking on the first real love affair of his life. His trusty interpreter, the shy Gen Watanabe, a “genius” at languages who “was often at a loss for what to say when left with only his own words,” becomes a person of great authority, indispensable to the smooth running of the polyglot household. General Benjamin, the leader of the terrorists, is revealed as a sensitive, tormented man with a complicated past. (In a more surprising turn of events, two of the gun-toting rebels turn out to be girls named Beatriz and Carmen – and not, as you’re led to believe at first, teenage boys.) Most memorable of all is the charismatic American diva, Roxane Coss, with whom pretty much everyone, hostages and rebels alike, ends up falling in love by the end of the novel. Long used to inspiring but never feeling love, Roxane finally discovers, during the course of her imprisonment, the true meaning of the outsize emotions about which she has always sung. (Bel canto is Italian for “beautiful singing.”)
Roxane’s uncanny effect on people is meant to symbolize the transformative power of art, the way in which art and culture are as inevitable as the beauty and desire that inspire them. Patchett conveys this by small, insignificant-looking events. These are the few “plot points” you get here. Gen teaches Carmen to read and write, and the two fall in love. One of Hosokawa’s corporate underlings, long thought of as nothing more than a numbers man, turns out to be an excellent pianist and accompanist for Roxane (whom the terrorists, as mesmerized as everyone else, allow to practice every day). Vice-President Iglesias starts rehabilitating the neglected gardens with the help of one of the rebel youths. The rebels become addicted to telenovelas. Hosokawa, who never had time for anything but business, decides to learn Spanish; other hostages catch up on their García Márquez. Beatriz, the only other female guerrilla besides Carmen, learns to tell time and makes her first confession, to a music-loving priest. The French diplomat, Thibault, teaches everyone to cook. And Roxane, finding that one of the rebel boys has an extraordinary voice, takes him on as a student.
Literature, music, horticulture, drama, language, religion, cuisine, pedagogy: These are the elements of civilization itself, and Patchett’s optimistic point is that they will spring up in the most inhospitable of places. “Who knew that being kidnapped was so much like attending university?” one of the characters jokes at what proves to be the end not of a nightmare but of a culture-filled idyll, a time-out-of-time in which politicians and corporate tycoons and terrorists get a prolonged taste of literature, art, music – “all the brilliant things we might have done with our lives if only we suspected we knew how.”
Patchett takes her time getting there, but by the climax of her story, you find yourself hoping that the idyll will – somehow, magically – last. Of course, it can’t. The fact that it lasts as long as it does, in such improbable circumstances, is a testament to her own magical powers.
By Ann Patchett
HarperCollins; 318 pages; $25.00.