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.


Yuri... said...

Wow - what an intensely personal and at the same time incisive review/critique/homage. I really feel how much you loved this book, and am moved by what the author - reportedly - has accomplished. In fact, I want to 1) leave my desk; 2) head over to the Trident; and 3) buy this book at this very instant.

Thanks :)

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

I don't want to diminish anyone's enjoyment of this novel, so I'll mostly keep my mouth shut. You're right to say it's not realize, and, I think, not right to say that no one is dehumanized.

Two questions:
1. Why do all of the characters have a specific nationality, except for one group?
2. How would the novel be different if the singer were, say, a Wagnerian soprano rather than a bel canto specialist, or if the type of opera she sang were Chinese?

Sandra said...

Great review. I loved this book. It was a top favourite the year I read it.

Bookphilia said...

Amateur Reader: I had a percolating idea about why the South American country is never named but it didn't become complete until you asked your question. So, thank you!

This strange anonymity made me think of Shakespeare (in Hamlet) referring to death as an "undiscovered country". Death is inevitable here and what that means for anyone but the priest is pretty unclear.

Further, what is also undiscovered is what happens in between the leaving off of the normal life and the death that must conclude a situation like this one. For Patchett, the undiscovered country is one where miraculous beauty and kindness are possible. It's not realistic, but I personally think fantasy (which, I think, you said all fiction was - or am I attributing something to you which isn't yours?) should be celebrated precisely for daring to imagine something beyond what is immediately conceivable, even if a certain amount of discomfort arises - in this case, as a result of a rare overabundance of optimism about human nature.

In other words, the dream this book describes occurs both metaphorically and literally in a place, in this case a South American country, that doesn't exist - but maybe could.

As for the type of music Roxanne sings, I can't answer that - I know literally nothing about opera in any form whatsoever. Indeed, what I imagined her voice and music sounded like is likely extremely far from the reality. Someone else is going to have to tackle this one.:)

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Well argued, and very interesting. The puzzle, then, is why Patchett kept all of the Peruvian detail - the acoholic beverages, the derogatory reference to Andean folk music, all sorts of real-world borrowings from the 1997 Japanese embassy hostage crisis, even a veiled mention of The Shining Path - without naming Peru. In other words, I'm not sure that Patchett's country is so undiscovered.

This is a place where I think Patchett is dehumanizing her characters - the kidnappers have no culture. No music, no political ideas, no nationality, nothing. There are no people in the world who have no culture. So the South Americans become fantasy creatures, savage beasts tamed by early 19th century European art music.

You got your attribution of my words right, and you're right to stay with the idea of treating this novel as a fantasy world. But I don't think that makes the ethical issues go away.

As for the music, I'll just say that I think Patchett has built her fantasy on some unexamined assumptions about hierarchies of taste that are at best bizarre and at worst dangerous.

Bookphilia said...

Amateur Reader: Ah, I see your point. I didn't know this story was in any way related to real occurrences; what you say certainly does suggest some serious ethical issues surrounding western perceptions of others' culture. The first question then becomes, how much responsibility does an artist (in this case a writer) bear towards the things that inspire the art? Is Bel Canto a case of cultural imperialism or a case of an attempt to imagine a different and more humane outcome? Or both?

I assumed that none of the hostage-takers' had had any contact with art because they were poor, though I certainly see what you're saying. What do you think of the one general who could play chess already though? Is that more evidence of European cultural imperialism (I'm not sure where the game originated, actually - eek!) or evidence of un-mined depths of knowledge, experience, and talent - I'm thinking of Carmen and Cesar, in particular, of course. And their particular talents are certainly given European expression but that's at least in part because, practically speaking, that's what their hostage-friends know. What other type of singing *could* Roxanne teach Cesar? And given where they are it makes more practical sense to teach Carmen Spanish and English rather than Japanese (although Gen wants to do that too). I guess what I'm asking is, how much should art be bent to concerns about political correctness and how much should it follow its own requirements? I don't have answers for these questions.

J.G. said...

I wasn't very impressed with this book, but your excellent review made me consider whether maybe I just didn't get it.

I certainly did not understand the bigger questions until I landed here. (Thanks!)

raych said...

Amateur Reader, you are raining on my parade. I loved this book hard, and it broke my heart. It seems like everyone loves Bel Canto or very much does not love it. Colleen, I'm glad you're in my camp. AmRe, there's room in our tent for one more. *pats rooty ground enticingly*

Rohan Maitzen said...

I loved this book too, though that may have been partly because I am a long-time opera lover. I guess I can see AR's objections if you read it politically; I too did not know any of the 'real-world' allusions in the novel and read it as being in some essential way "just" about art and beauty, with opera standing in for that. FWIW, my write-up is here.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

"Why not just follow one's pleasures and savor the riches that the world of narrative provides?" - Wayne Booth, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, p. ix.

It takes Booth 500 pages to answer that question, so it's a serious one. That's why I was a little reluctant to go after it. I'm anti-parade-raining! But I guess not too reluctant.

I don't think of my criticisms as political, but they of course are, even if the political issue is the meaning and uses of art.

Bookphilia said...

Rohan's review is amazing - you should all read it.

Amateur Reader: It is a big question and were I not still traumatized from graduate school, I might look at that Wayne Booth book. I'm trying to recall what Orwell had to say about this issue in "Benefit of Clergy" but my memory is just too fuzzy at this point.

verbivore said...

Fantastic discussion here - I was uncomfortable with Bel Canto, although I did enjoy Patchett's writing (except for the epilogue, which I wish her editor had told her to scrap).

I'm very intrigued by the Booth book Amateur Reader mentions...

Nan said...

Wonderful review! I really liked it, too - except for the ending. In my book journal (from 5 years ago) I wrote, 'I would have given this an A because I so enjoyed it - the writing, the pacing, the characterizations, but I thought the ending so abrupt and almost a cruelty to the reader that I had to give it a lower "grade".' Well, it wasn't *that* low; I gave it an A-. :<)

Rohan Maitzen said...

Colleen, the Booth book might help you recover from the trauma of graduate school (I'm sure you are excepting present company, right?). He is a very accessible writer--maybe that's why when I was at grad school right after this book was published, it was never, ever mentioned. :-)

Anonymous said...

I read this several years ago for one of my book clubs, and I loved it. She creates the mood so well, even though it was a traumatic one. Also, I'm very glad to hear you're up for the Japanese Literature Challenge when it rolls around again this July. It wouldn't be the same without you!

Bookphilia said...

About the book's epilogue: I would like to believe it is intended to replicate the jarring and painful reintroduction the characters have to the real world when the stand-off ends. I think it works that way but I'm not sure Patchett intended it that way.

Rohan: Of course you are excepted! Actually, my whole MA year is excepted - that was a great time for me. In fact, you made me seriously consider becoming a Victorianist instead of a Renaissance gal, but there were no Victorian profs at Queen's to work with.

Dolce Bellezza: Ah thanks!