Language and what it can and cannot be used to express lie at the heart of Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett. The book opens with a surprising and wordless moment: as soon as the final note of an aria is sung, the lights go out and the pianist kisses the soprano. At first, all of the guests at Mr. Hosokawa’s lavish birthday party (held in an unnamed South American country in the vice president’s mansion) think that the sudden darkness is part of the show. They are rapidly disabused of this idea when the mansion is swarmed with armed rebels.
Bel Canto plays out over months, after the rebels and the government outside the mansion hit an unresolvable stalemate. The rebels had originally planned to kidnap the president, who was absent because he wanted to watch the latest episode of his favorite soap opera. Without the president, the rebels continue to hold the party guests hostage in exchange for the release of prisoners and various other demands. The government refuses to do anything more than provide food and some creature comforts and the situation devolves into an intolerable waiting game.
While an increasingly harried Red Cross employee (who was on vacation) tries to end the stalemate and prevent any deaths, the perspective moves from one of the hostages to another. We learn about the French ambassadors resurrected love for his wife. A Russian reveals how he came to love beautiful things. A priest who was only there through a favor because a friend knew how much he would want to hear the famous soprano who would be performing tries to be a good Catholic priest in trying circumstances. Most of the book revolves around Gen, Mr. Hosokawa’s impressively multilingual translator, who is the only person who can translate for all of the languages spoken at the party. Because Gen is the only person who can facilitate communication, we learn a lot of secrets in addition to the brief psychological close ups of the other characters.
This hostage situation is not normal. The Red Cross man does manage to get people in poor health out of the mansion, as well as nearly all of the women. When the soprano, Roxane Coss, attempts to leave, one of their generals prevents it. They heard her singing before they cut the lights and just can’t let her got. Fortunately, her unwilling presence seems to keep everything from collapsing into a blood bath. By the time she negotiates for sheet music and finds an accompanist among the other guests, the whole thing turns into a weird microcosm outside of time. The rules slowly lapse. The generals lose their ability to maintain strict discipline over their teen-aged troops. The only thing the hostages can’t do is go home.
Bel Canto invites us into the mansion in the same way the guests were variously lured to the party. The soprano’s voice is hypnotically described. It doesn’t matter that most of the people in the mansion can’t understand the words she sings; the emotion behind the notes is enough to communicate love, sorrow, and other moods. Strangely, her singing does more to foster empathy than Gen’s ability to translate Japanese, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Russian, and Greek nearly word for word. The characters can hear each other’s words, but they only really listen to Roxane’s astonishing voice. I enjoyed Bel Canto a lot, with the exception of an epilogue that I thought was confusing and unnecessary. I won’t say any more than that for fear of ruining the story for readers who might want to pick it up.