Bel Canto

13700886On Japanese businessman Mr. Hosokawa’s fifty-third birthday, an unnamed South American country has decided to host a special birthday party for him. Their hope is that they can entice him to build a plant there, to boost their economy.  To draw him in, they have paid an astronomical sum for Roxane Coss, the famous soprano, to come and sing opera for the party. The moment is divine. Everything, from the delicious food to the orchids trembling on the table to the exquisite song, is perfect. And then terrorists, rough men with guns, come through the air vents, take all the guests hostage, and issue their demands: release their compatriots, do as they say, or the killing will start.

And then the tender fantasy that is Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto begins. The guests at the party come from many different countries, and speak all sorts of languages: Italian, Danish, French, Russian, Japanese,  German.  Roxane Coss is American. The hostage-takers are South American (perhaps Peruvian? the story is reminiscent of the 1996 hostage situation in the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima), and speak only Spanish and Quechuan. Yet thanks to the gentle and tireless translator, Gen Wanatabe, traveling with Mr. Hokosawa, language barriers crumble and people begin to form relationships. The opera singer begins to practice her unspeakably glorious singing, and everyone is transfixed with the beauty of the music. The unlikeliest couples fall in love, or make friends. People on both sides extend compassion and tenderness to each other, right up to the inevitable ending.

Now, I’ll say right away that this book was well-written. It seemed like a fable, in which all the usual violence and destruction was magically transformed into beauty and tenderness through the power of art. The way Patchett writes about music and language, and about the way they affect relationships, is intricate and pretty. I cared about the characters; I rooted for them, particularly Gen, and the young local priest, who volunteered to stay and care for his oddly assorted flock.

That said, however, I had serious objections to this book. I objected first of all to the entire premise that opera is the supreme form of music in all the world, more beautiful and more valuable than any other, and that people from every culture, no matter what their background, will be swept off their feet by it. This is cultural hegemony of the worst kind. Look how Patchett talks about the South American terrorists:

They had heard her sing while they waited, crouched inside the air-conditioning vents…. The lights were to be cut off after the sixth song, no one ever having explained in their lives the concept of an encore. No one having explained opera, or what it was to sing other than the singing that was done in a careless way, under one’s breath, while carrying wood into the house or water up from the well.  

This passage, not twenty pages into the book, made me angry. Does Patchett really suppose that the people of South America have no beautiful music of their own? No native instruments, no famous singers, no venues or traditions where music can be played either in villages or in larger towns? That humming under one’s breath is the native music of Peru? And what about this, when Mr. Hosokawa tries to listen to some CDs:

The Vice-President had a stereo system but he seemed only to have a taste for local music. All of his CDs were of bands playing high-pitched pipes and crude drums. The music gave Mr. Hosokawa a headache. The Generals, however, found it inspiring and would not grant requests for new CDs.

This passage is actually more revealing than the other, because it betrays some awareness on Patchett’s part that it takes some background and education to be able to understand another culture’s music. The first time a Westerner hears an Indian raga, it’s difficult to appreciate it at all, and impossible to appreciate the complexity, history, and structure of the piece. Patchett, however, assumes that her uneducated, jungle-dwelling Peruvians will be captivated and transformed by Chopin the first time they hear it. Western music taming the savage beast.

And the music is not the only sign of the book’s racism. The vice-president of the country turns himself (however improbably) into the household concierge. One of the South American girls looks at herself in the mirror and finds herself too “dark and coarse,” and covets Roxane’s “true beauty” (meaning, of course, whiteness) that she can never possess. Tellingly, the terrorists’ concerns and demands are vague and easily dismissed. They spring from no frightening or heartbreaking political reality. Music can lull them into nonexistence.

Bel Canto was almost so good. I wanted to love it, wanted it to be better, to be more complex, to have more to say about its topic. I don’t know whether Patchett is capable of writing the book I wanted to read, but Bel Canto, except for certain shining moments, isn’t a book I think, or even hope, will endure.

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12 Responses to Bel Canto

  1. Steph says:

    Oh no! I have this one sitting in my physical TBR pile! I picked it up because it had received so many glowing reviews, and also Patchett is from Nashville, but now I wonder if I will find it shallow. I suppose there’s only one way to find out! Thanks for your review – I think it will help me temper my expectations going in, which may make all the difference. I’ll keep you posted…

  2. Great review – nail hit on head.

    Note some of the assumptions about taste that are built in – imagine that the singer were not a bel canto soprano, but a Wagnerian soprano. Or that she sang not European but Chinese opera, or that she specialized in Modernist lieder. Even opera fans would (I hope) see the fantasy for what it is.

    Or say that the singer were Celine Dion. Millions of people find her singing beautiful and powerful. But she signifies “bad taste” while opera signifies “good taste.”

    But this is peripheral. The denial of culture, ideas, politics, and even a nationality to the kidnappers is the central ethical problem with the book. I think you described the issue very well.

    Patchett says that she watched the news about the 1996 Peruvian hostage crisis obsessively for some reason, so you’re right, that’s the source of the book.

  3. Teresa says:

    If it’s any comfort at all, I read this book several years ago and have forgotten most of it, so it certainly didn’t endure in my memory :-) . My impression is that it was a better than average piece of popular fiction but ultimately pretty slight and simplistic. I don’t remember picking up on the cultural assumptions, but I vaguely remember thinking that it made too much of the power of music in general and didn’t take the issues behind the terrorists’ actions seriously enough.

  4. Jenny says:

    Steph — I agree that managing expectations is key. And maybe you’ll love it. It was written well. It got on my last nerve, but that’s not to say it will do the same for you!

    Amateur Reader — your point is well taken about the ethical problems. It sounds as if you and I had similar reactions. Thanks for the props.

    Teresa — slight and simplistic, yes! You should have seen me growling as I was reading. Oh, well, books that annoy us have their purpose, too.

  5. Heather says:

    Great review. I have heard a lot about this one but I’ve never seen anybody point out that particular aspect of the book. I’m glad you mentioned it because I will be paying close attention when I read it myself.

  6. Lorin says:

    Interesting review. I’d heard so much praise for this book I always felt like I should have read it, even though it didn’t appeal to me. No more! I can cross this one off my list.

  7. Jenny says:

    Heather — I look forward to seeing what you think when you read it. You may have a different take!

    Lorin — personally, I am not sure how it won prizes and garnered so much praise. While its prose is probably better than average, it is a slight book with some major flaws. My own (apparently not so humble!) opinion is that you can let this one slide!

  8. i still have this book in my tbr pile, but have not read it yet. I think starting run by patchett put me off reading her other works.

    i hope to get to bel canto soon.

  9. Jenny says:

    Serena — This has definitely put me off her other stuff. Let me know what you think when you read Bel Canto, though.

  10. lisamm says:

    I hated Bel Canto, and “hate” isn’t something I say lightly. The constant reference to Roxane’s, as you say, “unspeakably glorious” voice began to grate on my nerves very early on, and by the end I wanted to throw the book against the wall. The latent racism and disregard of the culture pissed me off and turned me off completely to Ann Patchett- although I will soon be reading her Truth and Beauty, just because it’s about her doomed friendship with Lucy Grealy, who I became interested in through her book Autobiography of a Face.

    I’m always astonished when I read a glowing review of Bel Canto (and there are many). A close friend of mine claims it is her favorite book ever, and I think, seriously??

  11. Pingback: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett « The Armenian Odar Reads

  12. Jenny says:

    Ah. Oh. I see. Yes. This is a very compelling argument in favor of not reading Bel Canto. :p

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