Thursday, 26 July 2012

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Every now and again I read a book that makes such an impression on me that I want to give copies to all my friends. Patchett’s Bel Canto is one of them, a novel ostensibly about the effect of a lengthy kidnap saga in an unnamed South American country, but which covers tragedy and high drama, romance and the redeeming qualities of opera.

A powerful Japanese businessman is persuaded to visit the unnamed country when the president manages to book the man’s favourite opera soprano, Roxanne Coss, to sing at a party in his honour. As the house lights go out at the end of her performance, a motley band of terrorists storm the house, looking for the president. Unfortunately, their target is at home, watching his favourite telenovela. Their plan in disarray, the terrorists take everyone hostage and a siege lasting several months ensues.

Patchett is unsparing in the violence that accompanies the armed group’s entrance, but as the standoff between the three ringleaders (‘the generals’) and the government outside develops into stalemate, the occupants of the house, both hostage and hostage-taker, find themselves adapting to their new life, trapped in the luxurious home of the vice-president. Illicit relationships quietly flourish; Roxanne Coss begins to sing again, enchanting the occupants of the house; the foot soldiers, barely older than children, begin to warm to their prisoners and vice versa. Now allowed the luxury of time for introspection, many re-evaluate their lives. French Ambassador, Simon Thibault, devotes his thoughts to his wife, safely on the other side of the vice presidential compound. His uxoriousness is ever present (as is her discarded shawl, which he keeps wrapped around his neck at all times) and he finds himself thinking about Edith even when he’s trying to make supper for nearly sixty people, without being allowed to use knives, or even obtain that ubiquitous ingredient in French cuisine, wine:

“What about a simple coq au vin?” Thibault said. “They confiscated all the vin,” Ruben said. “We could always send Gen out for another request. It’s probably locked up around here somewhere unless they drank it all.” “No vin,” Simon Thibault said sadly, as if it were something dangerous, as if it were a knife. How impossible. In Paris one could be careless, one could afford to run out completely because anything you wanted was half a block away, a case, a bottle, a glass. a glass of Burgundy in the autumn at a back table at Brasserie Lipp, the light warm and yellowed where it reflected off the brass railings around the bar. Edith in her navy sweater, her hair pulled back and twisted into a casual knot, her pale hands cupping the bowl of the glass. how clearly he can see it, the light, the sweater, the dark red of the wine beneath Edith’s fingers. When they moved to the Heart of Darkness they had wine shipped two dozen cases at a time, enough wine to quench an entire city through a drought. Thibault tried to make a cellar out of what was merely a wet dirt basement. French wine was the cornerstone of French diplomacy. He handed it out like peppermints. Guests stayed later at their parties. They stood forever on the walk that led down to the gate and said good night, good night, but never seemed to leave. Edith would finally go inside and bring them each a bottle, press it into their resisting hands. Then they scattered into the darkness, each back to his or her car and driver, holding the prize. “This is my blood.” Thibault raised his glass to his wife when the guests had finally gone.” It will be shed for you and for no men.”

The siege can’t last forever, of course, and the end when it comes is as tragic as the operas that Roxanne sings so beautifully.

1 comment:

  1. This is one of those rare books
    which one is loathe to put down, yet reluctant to read quickly, for the
    pure joy of reading the poetically written emotions and perfectly worded
    sentences. I found that I could only read one page per sitting, so
    badly did I want to savor it's exquisite flavors. Count me in as a new
    advocate of Ann Patchett!

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