Posted by Ardyce on 7th August 2014
|August 26, 2014|
In an unnamed South American country, a world-renowned soprano sings at a birthday party in honor of a visiting Japanese industrial titan. His hosts hope that Mr. Hosokawa can be persuaded to build a factory in their Third World backwater. Alas, in the opening sequence, just as the accompanist kisses the soprano, a ragtag band of 18 terrorists enters the vice-presidential mansion through the air conditioning ducts. Their quarry is the president, who has unfortunately stayed home to watch a favorite soap opera. And thus, from the beginning, things go awry.
Among the hostages are not only Hosokawa and Roxane Coss, the American soprano, but an assortment of Russian, Italian, and French diplomatic types. Reuben Iglesias, the diminutive and gracious vice president, quickly gets sideways of the kidnappers, who have no interest in him whatsoever. Meanwhile, a Swiss Red Cross negotiator named Joachim Messner is roped into service while vacationing. He comes and goes, wrangling over terms and demands, and the days stretch into weeks, the weeks into months.
With the omniscience of magic realism, Ann Patchett flits in and out of the hearts and psyches of hostage and terrorist alike, and in doing so reveals a profound, shared humanity. Her voice is suitably lyrical, melodic, full of warmth and compassion. Hearing opera sung live for the first time, a young priest reflects:
Never had he thought, never once, that such a woman existed, one who stood so close to God that God’s own voice poured from her. How far she must have gone inside herself to call up that voice. It was as if the voice came from the center part of the earth and by the sheer effort and diligence of her will she had pulled it up through the dirt and rock and through the floorboards of the house, up into her feet, where it pulled through her, reaching, lifting, warmed by her, and then out of the white lily of her throat and straight to God in heaven.
Joined by no common language except music, the 58 international hostages and their captors forge unexpected bonds. Time stands still, priorities rearrange themselves. Ultimately, of course, something has to give, even in a novel so imbued with the rich imaginative potential of magic realism. But in a fractious world, Bel Canto remains a gentle reminder of the transcendence of beauty and love.
1. Describe Roxane Coss. What is it about her that makes such an impression on the other hostages and the terrorists? Is it merely that she is famous? How does her singing and the music relate to the story?
2. Even though he is given the opportunity to leave the mansion, Father Arguedas elects to stay with the hostages. Why does he decide to stay when he risks the possibility of being killed? As the narrative states, why did he feel, “in the midst of all this fear and confusion, in the mortal danger of so many lives, the wild giddiness of good luck?” (pg. 74). Isn’t this an odd reaction to have given the situation? What role does religion play in the story?
3. are numerous instances in the story where Mr. Hosokawa blames himself for the hostages’ situation. He says to Roxane, “But I was the one who set this whole thing in motion.” Roxane replies with the following: “Or did I?” she said. “I thought about declining…. Don’t get me wrong. I am very capable of blame. This is an event ripe for blame if I ever saw one. I just don’t blame you.” Is either one to blame for the situation? If not, who do you think is ultimately responsible?
4. Roxane and Mr. Hosokawa speak different languages and require Gen to translate their conversations. Do you think it’s possible to fall in love with someone to whom you cannot speak directly?
5. “Roxane Coss and Mr. Hosokawa, however improbable to those around them, were members of the same tribe, the tribe of the hostages…. But Gen and Carmen were another matter” (pg. 294). Compare the love affairs of Gen and Carmen and Roxane and Mr. Hosokawa. What are the elements that define each relationship?
6. We find out in the Epilogue that Roxane and Gen have been married. How would you describe their relationship throughout the story? Thibault believes that “Gen and Roxane had married for love, the love of each other and the love of all the people they remembered” (pg. 318). What do you think of the novel’s ending? Did it surprise you? Do you agree with Thibault’s assessment of Gen and Roxane’s motivations for marrying?
7. The garua, the fog and mist, lifts after the hostages are in captivity for a number of weeks. “One would have thought that with so much rain and so little light the forward march of growth would have been suspended, when in fact everything had thrived” (pg. 197). How does this observation about the weather mirror what is happening inside the Vice President’s mansion?
8. At one point Carmen says to Gen, “‘Ask yourself, would it be so awful if we all stayed here in this beautiful house?’” (pg. 206). And towards the end of the story it is stated: “Gen knew that everything was getting better and not just for him. People were happier.” Messner then says to him, “‘You were the brightest one here once, and now you’re as crazy as the rest of them’” (pg. 302). What do you think of these statements? Do you really believe they would rather stay captive in this house than return to the “real” world?
9. When the hostages are finally rescued, Mr. Hosokawa steps in front of Carmen to save her from a bullet. Do you think Mr. Hosokawa wanted to die? Once they all return to their lives, it would be nearly impossible for him to be with Roxane. Do you think he would rather have died than live life without her?
10. The story is told by a narrator who is looking back and recounting the events that took place. What do you think of this technique? Did it enhance the story, or would you have preferred the use of a straight narrative?
(Questions issued by publisher.)