On 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.