Wednesday 10 June 2009
As if the singing would save their lives
I've begun and erased this post about 5 times already. I like this book so very much that I don't know where to begin. How about this:
If someone tells you that this book is about a hostage-taking, don't worry about that; don't not read it because you imagine it's going to be cheap and sensational and shallow. It's none of these things.
But Ann Patchett's Bel Canto is about a hostage-taking, which begins at a party in a South American country (which is never named); a terrorist group breaks in looking to kidnap the president who has, at the last moment, decided to skip the party in favour of watching his favourite soap opera. The terrorists panic a little and take everyone at the party hostage, including a world-famous opera singer, and the rest of the story goes from there.
The kidnappers and the hostages spend many months together and the novel delves into the seemingly impossible relationships that can be established in extreme circumstances. Professionals would undoubtedly refer to what Patchett describes in this book simply as Stockholm Syndrome, but I think that Patchett treats her characters with too much gentleness and respect, as well as invests them with too much complexity, for such a blanket psychological term to be applied comfortably. And because that unspoken term isn't allowed easily to be applied, the term "terrorist" (which she does use) is also constantly problematized. There is no dehumanizing of anyone in this book; indeed, what makes it compelling to me is how insistently human she makes every character she creates.
The primary medium for the humanization of all these characters is music, particularly the voice of Roxanne Coss, a world-renowned soprano who's been brought to the party to try to convince opera aficionado and businessman Mr. Hosokawa to build a factory in the country. At the party, her singing is concluded by all the lights going out and the hostage-takers busting in - all of whom have spent the whole party hidden, forced to listen to and begin to be transformed in some way by her voice.
So, yes, this book about a hostage-taking is not only refreshingly human and gentle, but it is also a meditation on art and what it means to people, even (especially!) people who have never been privileged enough to really experience it before.
I know I'm not doing this book justice; I don't seem to have the vocabulary required to write positively about a book without sounding quite bland. And maybe that's one of the reasons why I love this book so much: Ann Patchett can write about things like love and care and hope and desire without ever sounding pat or bland or maudlin or hokey. She has a sort of magic that I think very few writers do. She makes my heart contract when she writes about a hug, whereas most writers treating the same material or situations would incense me with their sentimentalization of things we all know are beautiful in reality.
I think Patchett is able to do this in part because her writing is so good. And a large part of what makes it good is that it doesn't draw attention to itself. There are no Rushdie-esque moments of "Hey, look at how utterly brilliant, charming, and clever this writing is!" It's gentle and quiet, and if this is something that can be said about writing, vulnerable. I know that doesn't make sense and yet I somehow feel that's the right word, or at least close to the right word.
And of course, things end badly. As Patchett tells us right at the beginning, all of the terrorists end up dead. What's amazing to me is that, knowing that, I was still able to believe completely in what becomes almost every character's impossible dream - that somehow they'll be able to spend the rest of their lives together listening to music and being innocent.
And innocent, in the most fundamental way, is what everyone described in this book becomes. For me, that's what's truly painful about the impossibility of it all - that human beings might have more than very rare and brief moments of pure freedom from what degrades our humanity and makes us stupid, selfish, and violent.
I don't think Patchett was ever going for realism here, even though she treats her characters with a complexity I didn't expect. No, I think what she was going for here was a sort of wild and profound hope - indeed, this book may have arisen out of one of those rare and profound moments of innocence which her characters are allowed to enjoy for such an unnaturally and unrealistically long period of time.