I have an erratic relationship with the news. I don't own a television and I don't subscribe to the local paper. I listen to NPR while I eat my breakfast or drive around in my car. About four days a week (depending on the circumstances of the week) I manage to read The New York Times. If something happens on a day when I skip breakfast and don't pick up a paper, it is completely possible that an event of major world importance could pass right by me.
Despite these lax practices, every now and then there's a news story that consumes me completely. The takeover of the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru in December 1996 drew me to the radio and held me there. I read everything about it that I could. I made it a point to drop in on friends during the evening news so that I could see the pictures on television. A terrorist group known as Tupac Amaru had commandeered a dinner party of 450 people at the Japanese embassy. By the end of the week, they had released all but 74 of the hostages. The terrorists, from what I could tell, were not especially terrifying, or at least they were nothing like the members of The Shining Path, the group with which they were so often confused. Their goal was to force the government into freeing some 400 political prisoners from Peru's notorious high altitude prisons. They seemed to have all the time in the world to wait.
Very few disasters happen in slow motion: plane crashes, school shootings, earthquake - by the time we hear about them, they're usually over. But the story in Lima stretched on, one month, two, three. The media could not sustain its interest. The story fell off the first page, and later off the fifth. Many days the news didn't mention the hostages at all. It seemed that the world had gotten used to them being there. An embassy wasn't such a bad place to be stuck and, after all, no one was getting shot.
But I couldn't stop thinking about these people. There is no such thing as a good kidnapping, but I heard the hostages played chess with their captors. I heard they played soccer. There were rumors of large pizza orders. Many of the terrorists were young and they liked to watch soap operas on television. I don't know how far things had gone when I realized that I was reading about the novel I was going to write next. The story had all the elements I was interested in: the construction of family, the displacement from home, a life that was at once dangerous and completely benign. I started to put together my list of characters. I gave the hostages an opera singer, one woman kept, though in real life all the women had been released. They needed an opera singer, I thought, the story was so operatic. The plot taking place in my imagination moved forward while the one on the news seemed to stagnate.
And then a friend called me. "Come quick," she said. "It's over." The military had tunneled up into the compound and then shot all the terrorists, saving all the hostages. That was that. The story was over. There were many things I wanted to write about when I started Bel Canto, music and language and people's ability to communicate with one another. I wanted to explore the idea that if we were forced out of our normal lives for a time, taken away from everything we know, we might be given the opportunity to see the world in a new way. But more than anything, I wanted to find a way to grieve for something I had read about in the paper. The disasters I find there make me dizzy. They reel by me in a state of constant abstraction. Seven children shot in a school, 258 people killed in a plane crash, 10,000 lost in an earthquake. These are numbers I can't understand, and I find myself thinking that these are things that happen someplace far away, to people I don't know. How could I begin to separate out every life, to acknowledge it, grieve for it, and learn from it? I couldn't do it every time, but with this story I thought, just once I wanted to try.
Bel Canto, being published this month by HarperCollins is the fourth novel by Ann Patchett, author of The Patron Saint of Liars and The Magician's Assistant.
Copyright 2001 BookPage Reviews
Kirkus Reviews 2001 April #2
Combining an unerring instinct for telling detail with the broader brushstrokes you need to tackle issues of culture and politics, Patchett (The Magician's Assistant, 1997, etc.) creates a remarkably compelling chronicle of a multinational group of the rich and powerful held hostage for months.An unnamed impoverished South American country hopes to woo business from a rich Japanese industrialist, Mr. Hosokawa, by hosting a birthday party at which his favorite opera singer, Roxane Coss, entertains. Because the president refuses to miss his soap opera, the vice-president hosts the party. An invading band of terrorists, who planned to kidnap the president, find themselves instead with dozens of hostages on their hands. They free the less important men and all the women except Roxane. As the remaining hostages and their captors settle in, Gen, Mr. Hosokawa's multilingual translator, becomes the group's communication link, Roxane and her music its unifying heart. Patchett weaves individual histories of the hostages and the not-so-terrifying terrorists within a tapestry of their present life together. The most minor character breathes with life. Each page is dense with incident, the smallest details magnified by the drama of the situation and by the intensity confinement always creates. The outside world recedes as time seems to stop; the boundaries between captive and captor blur. In pellucid prose, Patchett grapples with issues of complexity and moral ambiguity that arise as confinement becomes not only a way of life but also for some, both hostage and hostage-taker, a life preferable to their previous existence. Readers may intellectually reject the author's willingness to embrace the terrorists' humanity, but only the hardest heart will not succumb. Conventional romantic love also flowers, between Gen and Carmen, a beguilingly innocent terrorist, between Mr. Hosokawa and Roxane. Even more compelling are the protective, almost familial affections that arise, the small acts of kindness in what is, inevitably, a tragedy.Brilliant.Author tour Copyright Kirkus 2001 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved
Library Journal Reviews 2001 February #2
In this tale by the author of such critically praised works as The Magician's Assistant, a terrorist takeover at an embassy party throws together an American diva and a Japanese CEO who is one of her biggest fans. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal Reviews 2001 July #1
Lucky Mr. Hosokawa. The well-connected Japanese businessman, now in an unnamed South American country on yet another job, is having a very special birthday party. At the home of the country's vice president, opera singer Roxane Cos will be performing for him and his guests. But what's this? Armed men invading the premises? These ragtag revolutionaries are looking for the president and disappointed that he is not there, but that doesn't stop them from holding the party goers hostage. What happens after that was, for this reviewer, a story that failed to ignite. Patchett (The Patron Saint of Liars) generates little tension as she moves her players around the board, and one is disappointed that there is little reflection about the head-on clash of art and life. This book is getting a big promotional pitch, however, so libraries may want to consider. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/15/01.] Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2001 April #3
As her readers now eagerly anticipate, Patchett (The Magician's Assistant) can be counted on to deliver novels rich in imaginative bravado and psychological nuance. This fluid and assured narrative, inspired by a real incident, demonstrates her growing maturity and mastery of form as she artfully integrates a musical theme within a dramatic story. Celebrated American soprano Roxane Coss has just finished a recital in the home of the vice-president of a poor South American country when terrorists burst in, intent on taking the country's president hostage. The president, however, has not attended the concert, which is a birthday tribute in honor of a Japanese business tycoon and opera aficionado. Determined to fulfill their demands, the rough, desperate guerrillas settle in for a long siege. The hostages, winnowed of all women except Roxane, whose voice beguiles her captors, are from many countries; their only common language is a love of opera. As the days drag on, their initial anguish and fear give way to a kind of complex domesticity, as intricately involved as the melodies Roxane sings during their captivity. While at first Patchett's tone seems oddly flippant and detached, it soon becomes apparent that this light note is an introduction to her main theme, which is each character's cathartic experience. The drawn-out hostage situation comes to seem normal, even halcyon, until the inevitable rescue attempt occurs, with astonishing consequences. Patchett proves equal to her themes; the characters' relationships mirror the passion and pain of grand opera, and readers are swept up in a crescendo of emotional fervor. 8-city author tour. (June) Forecast: Opera can be a tough sell, and though the musical theme is deftly integrated, this book may have a harder time catching readers' interest than did Patchett's first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars. Positive critical response should attract attention, however. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.