What a marvelous book Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto is! It’s so marvelous I talked one of my book groups into reading it next. What strikes me most about this book is the way a description of its plot captures absolutely nothing of the feeling of reading it. It’s a book that has hostages and terrorists, and yet that’s not what it’s about at all. Surely this is the only book out there that purports to be about political violence but is actually about love and joy and friendship? And the only book in which the central act is kidnapping that makes the reader feel so content and happy all the way through?
Briefly, the plot is this: an important businessman is celebrating his birthday in some unnamed South American country and a famous opera singer is brought in to entertain the guests. The party is held at the vice-president’s house, and the president is expected to be in attendance. A rather rag-tag group of terrorists bursts into the house just as the opera singer is finishing her performance and holds everyone hostage. They are surprised to find no president in the house, but they follow through with their plans, holding their less-prestigious-than-hoped hostages and making political demands. Most of the rest of the book tells what happens in the vice-president’s house over the course of many months while everyone awaits a resolution.
What happens in that house is a surprise. I am glad I didn’t know what was going to happen when I read the book, so I hesitate to say much about it here, except that I also really want to write about it, so if you’d prefer to read this book without much foreknowledge, then you might stop reading now.
What happens is that once people get through the first few horrible days when all the women except for the famous opera singer are separated from their husbands and released and when everyone left is certain they are going to die a horrible death very shortly, they begin to relax into their new life. They make friends with each other over time in spite of the considerable language barriers — it’s a very international group with speakers of at least a dozen languages present. Fortunately the businessman whose birthday began the whole affair travels with a very gifted translator who knows languages well enough to do the necessary translation.
What’s really remarkable is that, after even more time has passed, the hostages and the terrorists begin to develop friendships. It turns out that the terrorist group is not the most famous and most dangerous group everybody thought they were; instead, they are a small operation made up of a few generals and a collection of teenage soldiers, recruited from their poor lives in the jungle by the hope of a better life. The generals are in the whole business mostly to free some family members held as political prisoners. It soon becomes clear to the hostages that the child soldiers are more pathetic than frightening, even if they do carry around guns and harass them now and then.
Slowly, as the book goes on, the terrorists’ rules relax, the terrorists and the hostages become friends, and they spend their time playing chess, listening to music, and watching television together. The presence of the opera singer makes a huge difference; after the shock of the kidnapping has passed and she starts to practice her singing again, she enchants everyone in the house, hostage and terrorist alike, and people can’t help but forget their differences for at least as long as it takes for her to complete her daily practice.
Many of the hostages and terrorists come to prefer their life in the vice-president’s house to the one they lived before. It’s such a quiet, peaceful, well-regulated life, one with beauty and companionship and, in some cases, love. All of them have had their worlds turned upside down, and yet that turns out, at least for a while, to be a blessing. The word “blessing” seems fitting here because the mood becomes almost beatific. The main characters undergo transformations that have little to do with the kidnapping and everything to do with becoming more open, more patient, more peaceful, more understanding.
One would think that a book about terrorists would be the last place to turn to to find joy, and yet that’s exactly what this book offers. It’s a beautiful meditation on art, love, and unexpected opportunities for transformation.