Tuesday, September 17, 2013

the last book I read

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett.

We're in an un-named South American country, where the ruling regime have arranged an operatic recital for certain key local and foreign dignitaries in a bid to butter them up and attract a bit of financial investment to shore up their fragile economy. Their key target is Mr. Hosokawa, the head of a massive Japanese electronics firm, and they've lured him all the way from Japan by engaging the services of internationally-renowned opera diva and soprano Roxane Coss - Mr. Hosokawa being a bit of an opera nut and a fan of Ms. Coss in particular.

Little do the representatives of the ruling regime know that Mr. Hosokawa is such a devoted fan of Roxane Coss that he's quite prepared to travel halfway round the world to get a prime seat at a private recital, despite having no intention whatsoever of investing any of his corporation's money in the country. All that business is rendered irrelevant halfway through the gig, though, when a group of revolutionaries storm the building and take everyone hostage. The group's intention was to capture the country's president, but as he's ducked out of the gig at the eleventh hour to catch his favourite TV soap opera they find themselves having to make do with the vice-president and a load of foreign dignitaries and industrialists. They immediately release all of the women (except Roxane Coss, who has some value as a high-profile hostage) and the infirm, leaving 50-odd men and one woman.

There now follows a bit of a stalemate, while competing demands are exchanged, and the captors and captives settle into their daily routines in the expectation of a long siege. It's not easy keeping yourselves amused in these circumstances, but people find a way: Mr. Hosokawa plays chess with revolutionary leader General Benjamin, and once a proficient pianist is located among the hostages Roxane Coss keeps her operatic pipes lubricated by giving regular recitals.

Inevitably, close relationships start to form between the captives and the captors - the inevitable Stockholm Syndrome stuff, but also some more intimate liaisons. Mr. Hosokawa and Roxane Coss fall in love, as do teenage female revolutionary Carmen and Mr. Hosokawa's interpreter Gen Watanabe.

Clearly, though, for all the sense of suspension of reality that has set in, none of this is going to end well, and when it does end it's going to be at the expense of some of the relationships that have built up, because the protagonists are going to end up on opposite sides, and some of them are probably going to end up dead. And sure enough, when, after several weeks, the government's patience finally runs out and the army are sent in to bring the siege to an end, some people are rescued, and some are the recipients of a hot lead sandwich, either deliberately or as some of the inevitable collateral damage associated with liberations of this sort.

The first thing to say about this is that in general I enjoyed it very much, lest what follows be seen as an endless sequence of nit-picky criticisms. The main characters are rounded-out enough to be interesting and for the reader to care about what happens to them, not so easy in a medium-length novel (318 pages) where there are quite a lot of characters. That said, most of them are implausibly nice, even the revolutionaries. General Benjamin, the one we get to know best, plays chess and stoically bears the pain of a nasty attack of shingles, even while he's trying to overthrow the ruling regime.

As for the hostages, the French diplomat pines for his wife and cooks fabulous meals, the Russians smoke and drink too much but are generally well-intentioned, and the principal characters of Roxane Coss, Mr. Hosokawa and Gen are all dangerously close to Mary Sue territory. I mean, it's never happened to me, but I would imagine being kidnapped by armed terrorists is a fairly stressful experience, and one could be forgiven for occasionally being a bit snappy and cranky, but no, everyone's pretty fluffy and delightful throughout. I suspect that in general long hostage sieges (Bel Canto is actually loosely based on the Lima siege of 1996) are a bit more grim and savage, with the occasional arbitrary executions, the dubious hygiene and the constant hunger and thirst, but here it's all roast chickens from the lavishly-appointed kitchen and opera recitals courtesy of our heroine. And it's a bit convenient that after Roxane Coss' original accompanist dies in a diabetic coma early on there just happens to be an unsuspected piano virtuoso (one of Mr. Hosokawa's underlings) among the hostages ready to step into his shoes.

There's a lot made about the redemptive power of music, yadda yadda yadda, and fair enough I suppose, but it seems unlikely that among 60-odd people there wouldn't be a few unmoved or even positively irritated by opera, even when you've got a real-life diva belting it out less than ten feet away. And the epilogue that follows the climactic shoot-out is positively bizarre in its incongruous lack of continuity with everything that's gone before. Interestingly when the book was itself turned into an opera the writers decided to ditch the "absurd" epilogue altogether.

The other book I was reminded of while reading this was Iain Banks' Canal Dreams, which is superficially similar in that it features a world-famous musical virtuoso in a hostage situation somewhere in the Americas (that was in the Panama Canal; the specific location of Bel Canto is never revealed). That book was somewhat different in its depiction of violence, though, and in having the heroine turn into some sort of gun-toting ass-kicking Buffy/Terminator type by the end.

Bel Canto won some pretty heavyweight awards when it was published in 2002, most notably the Orange Prize (now the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction - my list goes 1997, 2002, 2005) and the PEN/Faulkner Award (my list goes 1995, 1996, 2002).

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