misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Ann Patchett's Bel Canto: "How much does a house know?"

Dear Friends,

Reveries under the sign of Austen also includes women writers whose work is in some way directedly indebted or in time closely connected to Austen's.  For tonight I want to speak of Ann Patchett's Bel Canto (published 2001 by HarperCollins, won the Orange Prize).  Her detached, ironic narrator  who maintaining an apparently comfortable, benign universe shows us the terrors and horrors of the world, satirizes and ironizes these.  I've spoken on my old blog of Pattchett's Magician's Assistant but of Bel Canto only in passing.  Bel Canto shows a real understanding of the true nature of kindness, which I think Austen did have.  Patchett celebrates beauty however we reach it. 

Monet -- a painting of great beauty

Her book Bel Canto is a gift (in which she sometimes meditates what is a gift,, when gifts are really valued.

As all the world who knows of this novel know the story line, characters, outcome are based a real hostage taking incident in Peru.  So in the book in an unnamed South American country powerful (=well-connected and rich) guests at a lavish party are taken hostage at the Vice President's mansion. The fiction closely parallels the real event.   In 1996, a group of young "terrorists" took 400 people hostage at the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima, Peru.  Both stand-offs lasted for months, but in Patchett's retelling, the clash of language, culture, and fear behind the mansion's walls also becomes a story about the power of music and the power of redemption.

The ending counts and the book's mirrors the real ending.  The Peruvian government did finally assault the place -- just as the US government has done everytime the hostage takers don't give in.  And of course public accolades of congratulations.  The way the deaths were spoken of minimized it:  14 rebels (including leader and two teenage girls), 3 others died.   The three others were Peruvian soldiers and a hostage.  The single hostage. No hostage was killed by the group who took them.  A judge also died of a heart attack, 25 wounded in gunfire, of which 2 were said to have serious permanent injuries.  Many of the terrorists were teenagers, and some surrendered, but they were "executed" anyway -- a Beatriz is.

As originally written the book ended with the deaths of two of our pair of lovers:  Carmen and Mr Hosokawa: 

  "One shot fixed them together in a pairing no one had considered before: Carmen and Mr Hosokawa, her head just to the left of his as if she was looking over his shoulder" -- for eternity.

As originally written our coda was the prologue.    Originally Patchett wanted us to begin with who would die.  Whole thing would be ironic instead of mildly suspenseful.  It would darken the work but also lose tension.  She was persuaded to tack it on to the end: -- the two left-over lovers (Gen and Roxanne Coss) marry one another, so as to remember, to keep the other alive. This time round reading it I can see it doesn't change the devastating close or the comment on the irrationality, egoism and (as seen in this book, this is the author's stance one we need not agree with) uselessness of political rebellion, negotiation, reform -- for those who run governments are determined to keep power, and I think (rightly) show to be legal terrorists.  She did chose her incident carefully; but it's not uncommon for terrorists to hold onto hostages; after all, that's all they've got, this is their playing card (the civilian). 

I put an essay on line which attacks the book as on the side of whites, upper class, elites Jane Marcus-Delgado. There is some justification for her outlook: yes the Spanish are killed, and the whites survive; yes the music of the Westerners is valued highly over that of the native Spanish; chess is seen as a worthy game.  The story does trivialize the outcome and stakes, the social misery; it ignores the justified rage of revolutionaries.  Huge numbers of Peruvians continue to live in abysmal poverty; between 1980 and 2000 some 70,000 of its citizens were murdered -- unreported. And during this time the US continued to give aid to the government who ordered this.

The book is best read as a compromised attempt to make people understand revolutionaries and expose the brutal killings of these people and as a fantasy idyll in the way of Francis Hodgson Burnett's Secret Garden -- where song, a house, being cut off from a hard anonyous competitive world for money -- it also is savagely ironic. It means to criticize these governments for killing these people.  Patchett does make them very human: she tells  us Benjamin's younger brother is in solitary confinement and has been tortured for giving out pamphlets; after Benjamin is savagely slaughtered, we learn the brother was simply shot dead. Carmen is not present a low or brutal or beneath anyone; she and Roxanne are like sisters we are told. I realize there is an awful line celebrating Roxanne's blonde hair, blue eyes and petite stature, but there are equally lines celebrating Carmen's dark beauty and Beatriz's boyishness. We are told too that that blonde hair is fake and as the months go by Roxanne turns into someone with brown hair with a shimmer of silver through it -- grey.

For Roxanne Coss, Patchett combined her memories of Renee Fleming's voice (here she sings Capriccio) and her friend, Karol Bennet's character (idealized) (see further in biographical sketch at the close)

In other of Patchett's books daily life seems benign in Patchett, as long as you don't look and think about your circumstances.  She has a real understanding of what real kindness is (I think few do) and this fuels her book as a kind of gift and delight as we watch the characters interact.  At least if you're like me and appreciate kindness. I've discovered not all readers do (not all people -- especially if they're not kindly themselves).  She's funny on the mesmerizing dreams TV offers, and there are tons of allusions to operas.  

She says she had in mind Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, a novel of redemption and despair where a young man escapes the modern world into a TB sanatarium; in Gale base she says her themes are "the construction of family, the displacement from home, a life that is at once benign and dangerous.

Bel Canto a marvelous song to the human spirit which is intelligent, well-done and realistic in a limited way about the human spirit.  One of its deeper thrusts is to show us how people in our modern world have to connect with others they'll never see again, interact with strangers.  She makes of the hostage incident an enchanted place -- an enclosed garden.

Patchett does not mean to be realistic and is deliberately creating a sort of temporary Utopia, showing how people who apparently have nothing in common in normal life might be able to links when they are thrown together by circumstances. That is, ordinary life ignores our best gifts, inner nature, what counts most to us; then we are re-mixed and these other things suddenly count because they are of use or because you are not threatened if you bring them out -- ability to play piano, love of games, desire to learn to read. 

We are often told life's a battle and we need to fight hard and be hard.  She shows us life's not a battle because it's so irrational that chance undercuts effort, and achievement is an illusion.  She has wonderful vibes and nuances about how people go about life daily as if what they are doing is so solemn and serious when not only is it catch as catch can -- safety is a dream because you never know what's coming around the corner next.  Each person makes others part of their dreams.  The inferences of the book include the great worldly successes we spend our life getting are not what make us happy; indeed they give no room for the best parts of our characters to emerge.  They also often come to us by sheer chance and not for the work and talent we have.  The vice-president is really much happier as a hotel concierge and would be better at it.  He's exploited and spends a life under pressure pressuring others in order to survive outside this hostage house.

There is the important theme of the irrelevance of language. Music alone transcends limited cultures; on the other hand, Gen, Mr Hosokawa's tanslator is continually needed.  People learn things:  to cook, to play chess, to sing, other languages

It's like a comic opera. We have two sets of lovers: our upper class one, Mr Katsumi Hosokawa  (our superrich venture capitalist everyone came to meet) and Roxanne Cosse (the soprano diva), and we have our lower class one, Gen and Carmen (one of the "terrorists").  Many operas and comic plays have lovers sneaking around at night; sometimes they get into the wrong bed.  Gay couple and serious or grave one.  Our gay couple is Roxanne and Mr Hosokawa, our serious or grave one Gen and Carmen, especially Carmen with her dreams. We have confidants: Roxanne and Carmen.  Adoption of children. I love undercutting of macho male stereotypes in the vice president, Ruben Iglesias whose real vocation is a concierge and housekeeper.  The lifting of guards we keep up and making contact for what counts.  Roxanne and Carmen in bed making one another's hair and Roxanne feels she is Suzanna from Mozart's Marriage of Figaro and Carmen the countess (this softens the reality that Roxanne is the upper class one). There are so many references to different operas which are beautifujl, and recall beautiful music or ideas (as in the narrator's descriptoin of how Roxanne sounds when she sings Rusalka, Mr Hosokawa's favorite).  It's like a tragic opera:  everyone dead on the stage at the end, or at least the important people. Or it's a tragi-comedy.

When the hostages are finally rescued, Mr. Hosokawa steps in front of Carmen to save her from a bullet. Do you think Mr. Hosokawa wanted to die? Once they all return to their lives, it would be nearly impossible for him to be with Roxane. We are to feel he would rather have died than live life without her

Of course it's improbable, utterly disparate from what we know usually happens when such incidents go on:  real humiliation, real terror; the hostages themselves intensely angry, fearful.  Perhaps this time it did not because the people captured were intelligent and sophisticated and their captors decent and genuinely wanting reform and to better their countrymen's lives.I'd call Bel Canto a cream puff in a steel case.

The steel is in the constant undercutting ironies, the deaths at the end, the use of a real incident, and the continual sceptical ironic (verbal ironies) about life by the narrator in which all that happens is presented as a game played this and that way.  Which game you end up playing and how you do it is a function of the circumstances and props you happen to end up surrounded by.  Plot-design irony: at the end it's unjust and perverse and cruel.  And second reading through: dramatic irony as we know how it's all going to end. These are the sorts of lines of thought and themes that provide the steel, the rapier.  And she's well aware that dreams of cruelty abound.  Every once in a while the curtain is pulled up and we see a gesture, glimpse terror and utter total deprivation and injustice in the lives of the hostage's family members and  the lives of the young hostages.


One cover

Notes on the characters:   Central presences:  Mr Katsumi Hosokawa, the Japanese businessman (a Mr Knightley and he is called Mr); Roxanne Coss, the opera diva (an Emma),  Gen Watanabe, Japanese translator; Carmen who wants to learn to read; lesser but have important function in the plot-design:  Father Argeudas whose music and bookselling friend sends the box of music; Simon Thibault, French ambassador who continually remembers his wife Edith and loves to cook; Coss's accompanist who kisses her as the novel opens and who is the first to die (from diabetes),  Joachim Messner, the negotiator who has the "magical ability to go in and out of the front door at will" (p. 138), Ruben Iglesias, the vice-president who is there and emerges as a central person for keeping everyone in order (a sort of wife, hostess, concierge).

More minor but clearly characterized hostages:  Some extended passages given to Victor Fyodorov Russian businessman who falls in love with Coss and gives us his memories of a beautiful book of pictures (art book) owned by his poor pre-soviet union grandmother (he wants to return to his brother, Mikal who will be all alone but for him). it may be fiction - he may be making this up it's hinted. Mr Tetsuya Kato who in "real" life is a vice president at Nansei and no one knew spent his offhours playing the piano; in life no one knew; Esmeralda, the housekeeper and childcare taker in Vice-President's house (children, Marco, Rosa and Imelda) Masuda, the president who stayed home to watch his favorite soap opera. Jokes about Beatriz who plays hard ball with the boys but loves to watch Maria on TV. Many jokes about what TV means to people's dreams.

Terrorists:  Carmen whom Gen falls in love with, Beatriz (dresses in strongly masculine way) who loves to watch Maria; Generals Benjamin, most intelligent and controlled who suffers badly from psychosomatic skin reaction and wants to free his brother (his brother is murdered later after the raid), loves to play chess, good at it; Alfredo, Hector (the most violent); young boy, Cesar who wants to learn to play music and hides in a tree when his feelings are hurt; Ismael who has yearned to play chess and gets to play with General Benjamin when Mr Hosokawa gives up his spot in the game. Stop a moment to read Ishmael's story, p 189.  Ruben dreams of adopting one of the boys.  They are La Familia de Martin Surarez (not La Direccion Autentica, much fiercer):  LFDMS.  A joke.

Minor mentions:  Gibert and Franciso, boy terrorists, Dr Gomez who escapes by lying about his kidneys; Loren Falken, German businessman, Oscar Mendoza, businessman (scene about what is sin); Ledbed and Berezovky, Russian businessmen.  Cameo roles:  the music seller, Manuel on the other side of the wall listening.

The more you know about opera the better.  Characters:  are they complex? I think they are often less than fully dimensional; we are given enough to know what we need to know but no more. They are like Chaucerian types; they fit roles and are the kind of person we expect to be in that role made benign. By contrast Jhumpa Lahiri's Namesake is endlessly psychological and J.L. Carr's A Month in the Country suggestive.  This is a story driven story.  Communicates through imagery of song and art and narrator's ironies.

 The story is told by a narrator who is looking back and recounting the events that took place. What do you think of this technique? Did it enhance the story, or would you have preferred the use of a straight narrative? 


Notes on the structure of the novel. There are ten chapters.

1.  Chapters 1-4, pp. 1-129:    Settling in.  We are introduced to characters, situation, stasis.  Ends on finding Kato to play.  .
2.  Chapters 5-6, pp. 131-96:  A new family forms with music and Roxanne at its center.  We see Gen emerge as translator, Ruben as concierge.  Each of the characters who have importance and are singled out takes on some new life as the life itself is organized.  The first loving pair begins to form:   "Tonight in the china closet," Carmen said, 'Teach me tonight'", p. 196.
3.  Chapters 7-9, pp. 196-288:  high flights of fancy and fulfillment.  Dreams expressed.  Togetherness.
4.  Chapter 10, pp. 289-318:  dark signs from Messner, and sudden sharp and sudden deaths just as everyone is intensely concerned with immanent things.

5.  Epilogue:  marriage of Roxanne and Gen who go to live in Italy; Edith and Simon Thibault back together.  Two pairs again.  Originally Patchett intended that we should have this as prologue.  Originally she wanted us to know who would die, who was left standing. Another reason the editor may have pushed her to change the structure is we read wanting the characters to live.  If we knew they wouldn't live, we would not read with the same appetite.  Rather than make for irony, it might make us not want to read the book in the first place. On the other hand, I feel were a movie to be made out of it, the movie would begin with the violent death scene and this coda and then work forwards in flashback fashion.  Flashbacks work forwards -- Swift's Last Orders gets across meditation through flashbacks, but unlike book they move strictly chronologically forward.

Another cover (showing ties to girl's mystery stories like Judy Bolton)


Questions to think about:

1. Even though he is given the opportunity to leave the mansion, Father Arguedas elects to stay with the hostages. Why does he decide to stay when he risks the possibility of being killed? As the narrative states, why did he feel, "in the midst of all this fear and confusion, in the mortal danger of so many lives, the wild giddiness of good luck?" (pg. 74). Isn't this an odd reaction to have given the situation? What role does religion play in the story? Importance of ritual and community.

2. There are numerous instances in the story where Mr. Hosokawa blames himself for the hostages' situation. He says to Roxane, "But I was the one who set this whole thing in motion." Roxane replies with the following: "Or did I?" she said. "I thought about declining…. Don't get me wrong. I am very capable of blame. This is an event ripe for blame if I ever saw one. I just don't blame you." Is either one to blame for the situation? If not, who do you think is ultimately responsible?  The world bank, the capitalists and wealthy around the world, spearheaded by US military power.

 3. The garua, the fog and mist, lifts after the hostages are in captivity for a number of weeks. "One would have thought that with so much rain and so little light the forward march of growth would have been suspended, when in fact everything had thrived" (pg. 197). How does this observation about the weather mirror what is happening inside the Vice President's mansion?

 4. At one point Carmen says to Gen, "'Ask yourself, would it be so awful if we all stayed here in this beautiful house?'" (pg. 206). And towards the end of the story it is stated: "Gen knew that everything was getting better and not just for him. People were happier." Messner then says to him, "'You were the brightest one here once, and now you're as crazy as the rest of them'" (pg. 302). What do you think of these statements? Do you really believe they would rather stay captive in this house than return to the "real" world?

Canaletto - dream house and gardens


Bel Canto in the context of Patchett's other novels and a memoir:

In other of her books, she sets up situations that are crisis like or extreme in some way:  her recent book, Run opens with a young white woman who as a single mother has adopted two black children; all is going swimmingly, until she dies and her white family then finds they have two new children amongst them.  She then develops what might happen to show how racism operates in the US.

The memoir is called Truth and Beauty.  Patchett met her friend, Lucy Grealy, while she was in college.  Lucy had been diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a potentially fatal cancer at age 9 and she had undergone terrible operations to fix her face which this disease had warped badly; the operations had not helped very much.  It could be said they made her look worse.  I've seen photos (online): she doesn't look that bad, but children can be very cruel. 

Gearly's chin was deformed more than anything.  She became promiscuous, let's say overeager to be liked, to make friends, and was vulnerable to bullying and sexual aggression and would end in hysterical behaviors.  Grealy's memoir is called The Autobiography of a Face was strongly praised: she's dead.  It's written with great candour as she tells of peer rejection, humiliation, endless operations.  Really makes you feel the caustic pain.  She tried to become a writer and poet and did not succeed.  It's not easy to make money from writing.  Grealy appears to have died from a combination of drug addiction, partly brought on by taking the stuff as pain medication, an overdose and despair.  Half-meant suicide, not uncommon.

Patchett's memoir is upbeat.  It's very odd in some ways:  no sense of judgement.  Not that I mean she should have judged her friend, but it is lacking any sense of anger or evaluation.  Patchett has been criticized for exposing her friend as she prints letters by Gearly which make her unsympathetic, very clinging, demanding.  I'll give an instance:  after all these operations you'd think Gearly wouldn't want another:  she went for breast surgery to make her breasts bigger.  This is painful and dangerous -- it does affect the immune system and brings on problems.  No where does Patchett register there's anything askew. Gearly bought into the beauty myth and her divergence from it destroyed her.  Somewhere Patchett could say something like this.  She turns away from it. She says she has no gift for villains; I think her imagination soars in idealized dreams and she remarkably takes us with her - for the fiction is meant to be moral amd we are shown good people.

Two of her other earlier novels  The Patron Saint of Liars, and The Magician's Assistant, she shows a strong tendency to present people as fundamentally benign, not seeking to harm one another, no malice, no motiveless or causeless spite. The Patron Saint of Liars, is also set in a sort of temporary community. In that  novel, the characters are a group of unmarried mothers brought together in a home where they wait to give up their babies for adoption, and, again, it all becomes rather unsettlingly idyllic, with loving descriptions of cooking, meals, nurturing and relationships which are built. Again, I kept finding myself thinking about the reality of the women who really lived in institutions like those shown in the film The Magdalene Sisters.  Such places are often punitive; far from nurturing; rather like welfare offices. Women filled with guilt and shame and often no one to help them much later.

The Magician's Assistant is about working class women's lives in small towns in the US.  Again Patchett made it seem as if it's really enjoyable to shop at Wal-Mart.  The idea was the reader should try to understand the experience of life of a woman for whom this would be possible, but it came out as too soft on human nature itself.

In all these cases she takes on intimate realities of people, especially women.  Sore spots. Poverty in a ruthless capitalist environment and dying small town, pregnancy out of wedlock was the old-fashioned term, hostage taking.

Renee Fleming singing the countess in Der Rosencavalier

Patchett told one interviewer that: "Roxane Coss is modeled on the only opera singer I know personally, a woman named Karol Bennett. Karol and I were both fellows at the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College in 1990-91. Physically, Karol and Roxane are very similar, small women with huge personalities. Karol commanded any room she walked into. It was as if music surrounded her even when she wasn't singing. I admired her greatly. The funny thing is that now I know Roxane so much better than I ever knew Karol. For Roxane's singing I mostly listened to Rene Fleming. I didn't have any recordings of Karol singing so I gave my character Rene Fleming's voice."

To conclude, Bel Canto a marvelous song to the human spirit which is intelligent, well-done and realistic in a limited way about the human spirit.  One of its deeper thrusts is to show us how people in our modern world have to connect with others they'll never see again, interact with strangers.  She makes of the hostage incident an enchanted place -- an enclosed garden.

Tags: 20th century, women's memoirs, women's novels

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