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Bel Canto Paperback – 1 Apr 2002
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Unfortunately the rest of us had a range of less positive responses. I was the one who disliked it most and I remain flummoxed by it. It's an award-winner and I expected to enjoy it. The first 80 pages or so were readable and I settled down with the expectation that it would develop — but it became, for me, steadily more tedious, flat and unbelievable. I was locked out of it, as if watching the action from behind a glass screen. Because the characters cannot speak each others' languages there is very little dialogue, so there is little chance for them to talk for themselves. Patchett instead tells us what everyone is thinking and feeling: she tells us that Mr Hosokowa and Roxane Coss (the diva who casts her spell over everyone in the house) have fallen in love though I really couldn't see or believe it.
Patchett also seems to wilfully ignore psychology. What group of men (more than 50 if I remember correctly) held hostage by some pretty lacklustre terrorists inclined to spend their days watching TV, would not attempt some kind of rebellion? What group of alpha males would be so mesmerised by the sound and sight of Roxane Coss that they would all, every one, fall in love and become passive and content to live there for ever? I did wonder if this was an allusion to the Siren, beguiling all who hear her song — but no, there was nothing sinister or complex about it.
I longed for real detail about how everyone managed for weeks without a change of underwear, or how the single intermediary managed to get enough food into the house each day to feed all the captives and their captors for so long. Or what they all did all day, because I couldn't believe they were all content to just stare out of the window looking at the scenery: not for months on end. Nothing about the book felt authentic to me. Not the setting in some unnamed South American country which is vaguely ridiculed. Not the characters, not the way they are reported as interacting with each other. Imagine my astonishment when, after I'd finished, I discovered that it was based on real events in Lima in 1996.
Someone in the book group wondered whether Bel Canto is supposed to be understood like an opera. An implausible plot that exists only to offer opportunities for big emotions and arias. Characters who react unrealistically. A lack of everyday detail. A chorus of male hostages who are mainly silent and invisible until called on to fill a scene. A sudden dramatic ending. Unfortunately, Patchett can only tell us about the music, so the novel lacks the sublime musical moments that make the ridiculousness of most operas bearable. And this is a fundamental problem when writing a novel about music. You need to hear the music, not just be told how wonderful it is.
I think possibly the only way of knowing whether you'll fall under Bel Canto's strange spell or not is to read it for yourself. If you get to page 100 and are feeling bored and uninvolved, give up. It really isn't worth continuing if you are locked out.
I lay myself open to claims of sexism here, but I can't think of another book by a male writer that was so tentative and willing to let the plot take such a back seat. That's not to say that sometimes the tangents explored were not worth exploring, but just that, trimmed of the digressions, the story would not run to more than about 40 pages.
There were some great scenes; the part where the French hostage took on the role of chef and demanded access to the knives was well done; but otherwise the characters and their empty or unconvincing. That opera should have such a great effect on the hostage takers - well, I'm not sure about that as much as anything else.
And one other little point: the country in which all of this takes place is never mentioned directly, only by the slightly clumsy reference to 'the host nation' or 'the host country'. Would it be so ridiculous to come out and say it? I noticed that the James Bond movies lately have been almost as bad; in Casino Royale the bomber seeks refuge in a made-up African country's consulate, though in Quantum of Solace there seems to be no problem whatsoever in calling Bolivia Bolivia, and filling the cast with shady and corrupt politicians and generals. So why not here?
As Coss' sixth song finishes, terrorists storm the building to capture the president. With the object of their plan out of reach, a siege develops and as the days turn into weeks, this strange mix of forty people find an unexpected happiness together. I enjoyed discovering the people beneath the various ideologies and personalities yet at the same time, I couldn't help wondering whether this would all end badly. It certainly kept me turning the pages.
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