Bel Canto by Anne Patchett


(bel canto : A style of operatic singing characterized by full, even tones and a brilliant display of vocal technique)

The author won the Orange prize for this book. After reading this book, I decided I should read all the other Orange Prize winners. This is such a touching and heart-warming book. Reading it makes me see humans in a different perspective – that we are all different, yet similar, something I try hard to do yet in vain; and that love needs no language.

Warning: This review contains spoiler!

This book is about a hostage crisis. In such a situation, one would expect violence and death. Yes, there is one death but not how one imagines it. Instead, The book combines comic humour with tenderness, and even as the ending nears, one is left wondering how the conflict would end.

The story starts in the home of a Vice-President of a South American country, where a birthday party is being held for an executive of a Japanese electronic firm, in the hope that the company would invest in the country. Most of the guests are diplomats and important people, and most of them, including Mr Hosokawa the birthday boy, are there for the sole reason of listening to famous opera singer Roxane Coss sing live. The President, of Japanese descent, had skipped the party in order not to miss the crucial episode of a TV soap opera, but of course, no one knows that except the Vice-President.

In the midst of the party, the house is stormed by terrorists who want to capture the President. Instead, the terrorists have to deal with two hundred hostages. In a negotiation by a red cross volunteer from Switzerland, Messner, they release the women, except for Roxane, and men who have declared themselves with health problem. Two have asked to stay: a young priest and Roxane’s accompanist, who was gravely ill but thinks it his job to protect Roxane. Alas, he is a diabetic who succumbs to his illness without adequate insulin.

An important character in the novel is Gen, a Japanese polyglot who is employed as Mr Hosokawa’s translator. During the crisis, if one can call the situation that, his help is often sought as he interprets between the hostages from Germany, Russia, Italians, Japanese, the Swiss negotiator and the Spanish terrorists, and even with God during confession. “Gen was perfect for the job, as he seemed to have a remarkable ability not to listen to the words coming out of his own mouth.”

The author captured the essence of Japanese men so well that it was interesting to walk in their shoes. Gen, as reserved as any ordinary Japanese man such that he has never uttered the word ‘I love you’ to anyone, has the awkward tasks when the Russian needs him to proclaim his love for Roxane; and when his boss, Mr Hosokawa and Roxane, who fall in love, need him to arrange to spend the night together in secret. ‘Maybe a translator was not unlike a doctor, a lawyer, a priest even. They must have some code of ethics that prevented them from gossiping.’

In the four and a half-months that they were kept in-door, while negotiation was going on, relationships develop between everyone, hostages and hostages, hostages and terrorists, as they try to make the best of the situation. The terrorists, made up of three Generals and a bunch of teenage boys and two girls as soldiers, when not patrolling with their guns, behave just like tenants in the house. Gen falls in love with one of the terrorists, Carmen; Hosokawa and Roxane with each other; the VP and another adore a young terrorist that one wants to adopt him and another to employ him. In the insanity of the situations, they learn about themselves too. The French diplomat discovers his love for his wife; A young terrorist, Caesar, discovers his amazing voice; another discovers his chess skill; a Japanese, Kato, taking over the role of Roxane’s accompanist, wonders how he could have given up his music for the job in the electronic company; the VP discovers his love for culinary and gardening.

Secretly, no one wants the crisis to end where the hostages, if not killed, have to return to their old lives, and the terrorists, if not killed or captured, to the jungle. Their lives in the mansion has become a comfortable routine they forget the situation they are in, until the government troops storm the mansion, just as how the terrorists have done one night.

As the left-over pages thinned, I wondered how the crisis might end. Would Mr Hosokawa divorce his wife in Japan to live with a woman whom does not speak the same language? Would Gen marry Carmen like he promises and take her out of the jungle?

Like any optimist, I wanted the perfect ending. I was disappointed. No, that was an understatement. I was so affected that I was actually quite down for a few hours after the completion. But the truth is, it’s the journey that I had enjoyed and slowly savoured. My wish now is for the book to be turned into a movie. How is it that no one has done so yet? Lee Ang, do consider.

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About vickychong

Just an ordinary woman.
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