Apr/May 2003 Book Reviews

Bel Canto

Ann Patchett
Harper Collins (2001) 318 pages
ISBN: 0 283 07353 5

reviewed by Anis Shivani

Love in a Time of Terror

Ann Patchett has wondered how differently she might have written this book after the events of September 11. Luckily for us, she finished the book by May, 2001, and succeeded in giving us an honest look at the common humanity that bridges the roles ostensibly played by terrorists and hostages, and other supposed opposites of the same kind, without being affected by the false sentiments produced copiously by official culture. Patchett makes her captors and captives forget all that they have learned and relearn what they have been taught to forget. Her lyrical prose resurrects humanism from cliché. Although we, along with both terrorists and hostages in the book, realize that in the end the forces of hatred are stronger and must win over love, we have no real choice but to live for the few moments of grace where attachment does win over separation. If this recitation sounds banal, it is to the credit of the writer that no note in the book falls to that level.

The plot is elegantly simple. In an unnamed Latin American country, a birthday party is being given in honor of Mr. Hosokawa, chairman of the Japanese firm Nansei, at vice president Ruben Iglesias's home. A number of international luminaries are in attendance, the star attraction being the world's best-known soprano, Roxanne Coss of Chicago. Terrorists from a revolutionary group emerge from the air-conditioning vents to disrupt the party. They soon let out the women (except for Roxanne) and the sick, leaving the three "generals," Benjamin, Alfredo, and Hector, and the fifteen "soldiers" (many of them no more than teenagers, and two girls, Carmen and Beatriz, initially disguised as boys) to watch over the thirty-eight hostages, mostly powerful business leaders from Latin America, Japan, France, Russia, Germany and other nations. Among the hostages is a young local priest named Father Arguedas, who chooses to stay despite being given the option to leave. The government sends in a Swiss Red Cross official with expertise in terrorist negotiations, Joachim Messner, and at first keeps up a barrage of orders issued by bullhorn outside the compound. It soon becomes clear to everyone, as if there were any doubt, that there will be an extended standoff that can only end in tragedy.

But before the inevitable tragedy occurs—since governments never give in—over time an almost idyllic relationship develops between the captives and captors (The terrorists are as much captives of the situation, since they had been aiming to capture President Masuda, whose professed excuse to the vice president for not being present at the party is his need to watch the latest installment of the spellbinding soap opera, The Story of Maria; without the leverage of having the president in captivity, the terrorists know that there can be no clean getaway, no real resolution to their botched adventure). In a sense, forced to rely on members of this ad hoc community for moments of solace and happiness, rather than traditional ties like family, country, long-time lover, or even compatriots who speak the same language, an ideal social order emerges. It is important to note, however, that the desire to learn the two things that most of us feel we have neglected—music and languages—blooms among the participants in this drama because their physical needs, primarily food, are being met by the state. Every day, Messner brings in generous amounts of food—bland sandwiches at first, and then uncooked food which the Frenchman Simon Thibault, pining for his beloved wife Edith who has been one of those released by the hostages, turns into the best meals he's capable of producing.

The strongest thread around which the narrative of the divergent yet similar desires of the protagonists hangs together is that of Gen, Mr. Hosokowa's multilingual translator, who for some years has followed him everywhere like an invisible shadow. Not all the terrorists even speak Spanish fluently; they speak a dialect called Quechua. Whether it is the Russian Fyodorov declaring his love for Roxanne, Roxanne herself arranging her first two A.M. tryst in her bedroom with Mr. Hosokawa, the Generals typing up their lists of ever-increasing demands which they know have no hope of ever being met (the Generals start treating Gen as their secretary) or learning what the outside world is thinking about their situation through Messner, it is Gen who is the centralizing consciousness between disparate languages and cultures. On the other hand, Gen is completely redundant. He is a means, an instrument, but the overarching dynamic of necessary human communication, in the dimensions and arenas where it must occur, would have gone on regardless. Certainly, he makes things easier, but perhaps his facilitating presence also lets the participants forget too much that they know will in the end overcome all their efforts to reach out and sense what is true of themselves in the other. So in conveying the metaphorical connotations of the "translator" as necessary but redundant transmitter of thoughts and emotions, Patchett is building the idea that humanism is both sufficient and insufficient. For a while it can overcome, but darker forces have the last word—to an extent.

What happens during the period of enforced captivity is that everyone's essential humanity comes to the fore—not only in the higher cultural or spiritual sense, but also in the lower material or economic sense. In other words, false constraints vanish, and almost a fever pitch of authentic articulation is reached by the end. Everyone's true—and better—self comes out. The only expression of force the terrorists have shown is at the moment of capture when Vice President Ruben Iglesias is silenced by the butt of a rifle aimed at his cheekbone by General Benjamin. But before she is released, Ruben's maid Esmeralda sews up this wound to the admiration of all present. The only fatality among the captives is Coss's Swedish accompanist, a man who has waited until he is on the plane with Coss, headed for Latin America, to reveal his love for her. The accompanist is in a diabetic coma, but rather than disclose his condition and leave Coss's side after the hostage-taking, he chooses to stay with her and die. After that, there is no more physical violence or destruction of any kind. The Generals become lax in their enforcement of the rules, so that while the young terrorist boys still perk up at the right moments, in effect they all know that no one will really contest the basic reality of the situation. More interestingly, no one would leave even if they could! This is because a more pleasant, more inspirational, life than any of the protagonists ever lived on the outside has come into being. The material side of it is the terrorists' appreciation of the luxury of the vice president's mansion. We realize that if only there were reasonable jobs and a good education for the young terrorists, they would never have been attracted to their odd career. They show no resentment or envy toward the sumptuous luxuries of the vice president's mansion; just as generals and soldiers all congregate Monday through Friday to watch The Story of Maria unfold, and weep shamelessly, so do the captors desire to imitate the possibilities that such wealth and power as the vice president's surroundings visibly demonstrate.

The inevitable patterns of attraction flourish without hindrance and complication. Mr. Hosokowa has been a great fan of opera from childhood; what could be a greater dream come true for him than to wake up every morning to listen to Roxanne Coss sing (for that is what she decides to do after two weeks, once Father Arguedas obtains all the sheets of music she could desire from a local music teacher and deacon, Manuel, and once it turns out that Mr. Kato, a vice president in Mr. Hosokawa's company, is perhaps an even better pianist than the deceased Swede)? Mr. Hosokawa gets to hold Roxanne's hand, although communication is at first through Gen, even of delicate sentiments, and in the pleasure of the moment is tempted to forget his mundane marriage back home. Eventually, Gen and his beloved, the female soldier Carmen, help Mr. Hosokawa go up to Roxanne's bedroom for their first assignation (learning to be invisible, Mr. Hosokawa is soon on his own). Meanwhile, Gen starts teaching Carmen Spanish and English in a china closet every night at two A.M. after the other soldiers have gone to sleep, and soon they make love too. Gen knows deep down that the upshot of their captivity cannot be anything good, but the only thing he can think of to salvage the situation is to have Father Arguedas marry him and Carmen so that he can tell the government soldiers, when they come, that she is his wife, and ask them to spare her life. Every man in captivity is either secretly or openly in love with Roxanne, although nothing violent comes of that either. The Russian Fyodorov's emotional declaration is taken by Roxanne in good spirit, with Gen acting as the translator despite knowing his employer's feelings for Roxanne, and with no expectation of reciprocity allowed or spurned.

It turns out that everyone is more talented, or at least capable of more intense feeling, than they had realized (in this so-called captivity, which is really a liberation of the spirit). Gen's love Carmen learns languages with astonishing facility. One of the scrawniest of the young soldiers, Cesar, who is slavishly devoted to Roxanne, turns out to be a budding opera singer (the first morning after Roxanne has made love with Mr. Hosokawa, she fails to turn up at her usual time in the morning to rehearse her singing to the accompaniment of Mr. Kato, and that is the moment for Cesar to display his uncanny mimicry of the words he has carefully been memorizing from Roxanne's singing). Without the fear and constraint imposed by a music conservatory's teachers, Cesar is an instant virtuoso. Everyone believes that he could be a great singer (although everyone also realizes that this can never be, since hostage situations like this can’t end happily). Another young soldier, Ishmael, who is devoted to the Vice President ever since he was called on the first day to bring ice to soothe the infection on his face, learns to play chess expertly simply by watching General Benjamin play chess with Mr. Hosokawa every afternoon in the Vice President's study.

Music, language, abstract thought without the restrictions of immediate application—these are the peaks of humanist culture, and it would seem that given half a chance they have every possibility of taking root in all human beings, regardless of the disadvantages they might have suffered, and even if they literally come from the jungle as these terrorists have. At the same time, the beneficiaries of the status quo in the outside world begin to realize the contingency of their advantaged status before the "terrorist" event. The Vice President is set to adopt Ishmael as his older son once the captivity is over, and Oscar Mendoza, a rich contractor, is determined to offer the boy a job. The hostages realize that they would not be willing to give up a single one of the terrorists' lives, if it came to that. Even once the terrorists give the hostages the run of the yard, and escape is easily conceivable, no one makes the run. After all, what is there to escape to that is not abundantly available in captivity?—love, friendship, spontaneity, the constant presence of the invisible, the possibility of learning all that each of the participants had either long put off or never had the opportunity to do so, and at the very least leisurely conversation.

The greatest disservice popular media does in defining terrorism is to separate us from them. To contradict this is Patchett's signal service. As Gen realizes, "there could be as much virtue in letting go of what you knew as there had ever been in gathering new information." To come to any new state of awareness in this world, so sharply and definitely divided between acceptable and unacceptable states of being and doing and thinking, the very first task will have to be to forget what we have been forced to learn—to the extent that each of us can do this individually, and in small communities. On the other hand, the paradox of Patchett's lyrical meditation on the possibilities of freedom within captivity is that we also know this not to be realistically possible, at least not over the long run. No government could let such an extended state of peaceful cohabitation among putatively hostile sides continue indefinitely. The very credibility of the state as monopolizer of violence and enforcer of competitive and hierarchical norms comes into question if and when this occurs.

Nonetheless, despite recognizing the essential unreality of the plot, we also must recognize its reality—in fact, Patchett's accomplishment in this book is precisely to make us sit back and take note of the latter, without forcing it on us in a didactic way. In this book the simplest truths are the most profound, without degenerating at any point into syrupy clichés. The capacity of the human spirit to forgive and forget is infinitely elastic, and it is what we need to seize on in dramatic ways in these destructive times. If Gen is the translator of languages, Patchett is the translator of emotions we normally hold at bay because we have questioned their abiding value in a time when all seems simulacra, nothing real, nothing possible. Our capacity to imitate (as the sincerest form of flattery) can be put to unprecedented uses, if only our spirits weren't broken down by institutionalized systems of thought as part of so-called learning. Yes, we know that in the end art and beauty are powerless against militarism and ugliness, but for the time that it lasts, if any of us is given the choice to be around and among beautiful people and things, we must make the most of it (and afterwards, when the scene of captivity is over, and the terrorists have all been massacred by the legitimate government, we must memorialize the moment of pleasure by extending it as far as possible, even if by second-rate imitation).

Translation is never beyond any of us; the learning of new languages to communicate the truth of the heart a necessary task in these times when the sources of traditional authority want desperately to define for us the terms of our captivity, ignoring the pleasant surprise many of us may feel in coming up abruptly against what we've been taught to fear and loathe all our lives long. There is nothing clichéd about humanist values, despite media degradation of them. Understanding does not have to be patronizing, and love does not have to be the failed last resort of false comfort. Patchett successfully takes us where we all wish we could be for good, without demeaning desire in any way. The artist, or writer, can fully reach for the aim of translation, despite the pervasive suspicion of incommunicability (or adverse communicability regardless of the artist's functional aim): the rest of us must at least seek to learn the world's different languages, or yearn to be accompanists, or failing that, be accomplished mimics and imitators. Below this level of aspiration, we lose touch with the fragile legacy of our shared humanity.


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