Want to read with me? Follow this link to view the list and pick a book (or a few!) to read along with me. I'd love for this project to be collaborative, and will post anyone's thoughts beside my own.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Would it be so awful if we all stayed here in this beautiful house?

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Bel Canto is the story of a Japanese businessman's ill-fated birthday party. Mr. Katsumi Hosokawa agrees to attend a party thrown in his honor in an unnamed South American country, but only after he is promised that his favorite opera singer, Roxane Coss, will perform. The country is hoping Mr. Hosokawa's very wealthy company will build a factory there, though Mr. Hosokawa has no such plans, and simply wants to hear Ms. Coss sing. At the end of Ms. Coss's performance, the Vice Presential mansion (where the fancy party is taking place) is overrun with revolutionary rebel terrorists. (I know, PLOT TWIST much?) The rebels (I'm going to use rebels from here forward, since terrorists seems like an inapt term for this particular crew) were hoping to take el Presidente hostage, but malheureusement, il n'est pas là! (Sorry. I've been practicing my French for an upcoming trip to Montréal. He. Wasn't. There!) It turns out the President was watching his favorite soap opera (obviously, like Presidents do) and did not attend the party. This flummoxes the rebels, who proceed to try to take everyone at the party hostage, rather ineptly. When this becomes untenable (how to feed so many people? where to put them all?) and Roxane Coss's accompanist rather valiantly dies (accidentally - it turns out he is diabetic but in all the language confusion it came out too late) the rebels release all the women (except Ms. Coss) and most of the working folk (remember, they're rebelling for the common man). A strange sort of détente ensues, wherein the rebels keep trying to negotiate for things they can't actually get, and the outside world keeps sending in a Red Cross negotiatior to keep them at bay and avoid any violence. A hostage crisis that should have ended in a few hours lasts days, and then weeks, and then months, and the house turns into a kind of suspended animation land. We gradually learn more about not only the multicultural band of hostages, but also their captors, and come to find a deep-seated affection for everyone trapped in the purgatorial (vice)presidential mansion. Friendships blossom, love (both unrequited and requited) is expressed, and, oddly enough, many songs are sung. Just as you start to think that perhaps this alternate reality could, in fact, resemble a kind of happiness, and you find yourself crossing your fingers that maybe hostage situations could turn into amicably blended families of captives and captors, the outside world bursts in, the rebels are slaughtered, and the captives are "freed" from their captivity. In the end, you're left wondering how to define freedom, where to draw the line between oppressor and oppressed, and how to find ways to bring more music into your life on a daily basis (well, that might be me editorializing at the end. ;))
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Here is the first note I wrote myself about this book: My feelings about Bel Canto are very complicated, but parts of it are extremely well written.

In terms of a reading experience, coming to Bel Canto after Mambo Kings felt very much like reading Fahrenheit-451 after finishing Clockwork Orange. It was a breath of fresh air, a rekindling of my fondness for reading. It left me fulfilled in all the ways Mambo had left me empty.

That said, I had some concerns here and there (which I'll address below) and I'm not sure it's necessarily earned its spot in the forever classics. Here are my thoughts [and OH - heads up! this post isn't going to be Proust-long, but it might be Ayn Rand-long, so feel free to put your legs up, find a comfy reading spot, and grab a coffee or a cocktail or a cuppa.]

- Ah-ah-ah-ah-AhAhAhAhAhAhAhAh-ah, ah-ah-ah-ah-AhAhAhAhAhAhAhAhah, ah-ah-ah-ah-Ah-Ah-Ah-ah-Ah-Ah-Ah-ah-Ah-ah-ah-ah-HA-ah-Ha-ah-Ha-ah-ah-ah-Ha-ah-Ha-ah-ah (scan to minute 1:10 or so in the video and see if you can find it!)
I knew this book was off to a good start when the opening quote was from Die Zauberflöte (oh I'm sorry is your German rusty, TOO? must work on your language skills, my bloggists! That's German for Magic Flute!). 

Speaker: Stranger, what do you seek or ask from us?
Tamino: Friendship and love.
Speaker: And are you prepared even if it costs you your life?
Tamino: I am.

I was trying to put my finger on when my sisters and my Mom and I first started singing the crazy high notes bit from the Queen of the Night (I mean, we were classic lovers, but that's intense even for us!) and I realized it was when we listened to the "Mozart's Magic Fantasy" tape. We had these cassette tapes that blended stories with famous works of music (like ALL COOL PEOPLE DO), and in addition to the Mozart one, we had 'Beethoven Lives Upstairs' and 'Vivaldi's Ring of Mystery'. I think it's these kinds of things that led to 6th grade Meredith proudly proclaiming her favorite song when prompted as "Ooh ooh ooh! I would have to say Vivaldi's Four Seasons, but most Particularly SPRING!" #thatclassicalnerdlife #lolz #ipromiseihadfriendsthatwerentbooks

I think one of my favorite things about reading this book was that it put me back in touch with classical music. I'm not separated from it, per se, but I used to be playing chamber music 24/7 and breathing Brahms and dreaming Dvorak, and other than playing in the pit for Phantom, my life has been music-less for awhile. I would download pieces of music when Patchett referenced them, and my heart sung in reading just the titles of some of my former favorites from the opera class I took at Haverford - Lucia di Lammermoor, Orfeo ed Euridice. It was so pleasant to be reacquainted with not just one love of mine, but two (reading, music). 

- Write what you know.
OK, so I know this is contentious within the writing community, and people come down strongly on one side or the other. I have to say, if you haven't already picked this up from my blob, I am a big fan of the writing what you know. This can be extrapolated! I'm not saying, oh, OK, so you're 23, a trombonist, and you like cats, you can only write about Those Three Things. But what I am saying is that it's important to be wary of speaking for others. We have a norm at Breakthrough - "Speak from the I perspective." It sounds silly, but you'd be amazed how many people you can offend when you inadvertently speak for them. "I think we can all agree that weasels are brilliant." Can we, though? This gets most sticky when we're dealing with an oppressor/oppressed vibe - how often are the oppressors speaking on behalf of the oppressed? Are we leaving someone voiceless? This leads me to the second note I wrote in my copy:
  • Concerns about a white omniscient American narrator speaking on behalf of foreigners, terrorist and hostage alike; feels like she's exploiting their situation to make art
When policy researchers use the term 'exploit', it's generally not viewed negatively. For instance, they might say, we 'exploited the 1965 desegregation reforms to study differentiated educational outcomes'. I thought this was very weird, and it took me a while to get used to it, since it seemed like researchers would gleefully seek out something to 'exploit' in this fashion in order to study a social phenomenon. This double-meaning of exploit came to mind when I was thinking about the note I wrote. I don't feel like Patchett takes advantage of the characters and players represented in her story, and I think she writes them well, but I do feel like she's not speaking from the "I" perspective. So here when I say exploit I almost do mean it in that social science sense. Because when I think about it, a large part of what makes the novel work, in my mind, is precisely the construct of the hostage situation. But on the flipside, I think what keeps it from being a work of true brilliance is the very fact that it's not her story to tell. How's that for a Friday paradox?

Do you need a break? Look away from the screen - make eye contact with a porcupine. Use the facilities. High five the nearest cat. 

Now Come on Down to the Hostage Situation is Right!
Ok. Maybe that was in poor taste. But here are some of the lines that I thought captured the situation most poignantly:
  • "If what a person wants is his life, he tends to be quiet about wanting anything else. Once the life begins to seem secure, one feels the freedom to complain." At first, the hostages are demure, and extremely obedient. But as time goes on, the General in charge starts thinking of them as needy children. First they want to use the restroom (fine), then they want food (fine), then they want Sheet Music for practicing Arias (SRSLY?)
  • "Ice?' Ruben offered himself, as suddenly his mind was filled with the pleasures of ice, of the snow on the tops of the Andes, of those sweet Olympic skaters on television, young girls wearing handkerchiefs of diaphanous gauze around their doll-like waists. He was burning alive now and the silver blades of their skates shot up arches of blue-white chips. He wanted to be buried in ice." Ruben is the VP, who later becomes the sort of hostage host. He gets a blow to the eye (which is the first and last real moment of violence from the rebels) and then starts fantasizing about how marvelous just a little ice on his face would be.
  • General Benjamin - "He wanted the priest and the accompanist to have left when they were told to leave. People shouldn't be allowed to decide that they wished to remain a hostage." hagh. Two people stolidly refuse to be un-hostaged, and the General finds this highly annoying. The priest is secretly deLighted because (a) he loves to be of use and (b) he has a superfancrush on Roxane Coss. :)
  • Ruben Iglesias -- "'Are you comfortable?' he would say to his guests as he swept some tender crumbs into the palm of his hand. 'Are you holding up all right?' He wanted to nose their shoes under the sofa. He wanted to drag the blue silk chair down to the other end of the room where it belonged, but decorum prohibited that." Adorably, Ruben tries to 'keep the party going' at his home. He knows that as the VP he's a sort of placeholder government official that no one has any real interest in, and quickly devolves into a man trying to keep his palatial home a pleasant living space for everyone.
  • "With a dishtowel knotted around his waist, he took on the qualities of a charming hotel concierge. He would ask, would you like some tea? He would ask, would it be too much of an imposition to vacuum beneath the chair in which you were sitting? Everyone was very fond of Ruben. Everyone had completely forgotten that he was the Vice President of the country." :0)
  • Shopping list for hostages -- "Certain things had to come in before the excess of hostages could go out: pillows (58), blankets (58), toothbrushes (58), fruit (mangoes, bananas), cigarettes (20 cartons filtered, 20 cartons unfiltered), bags of candy (all types, excluding licorice), bars of chocolate, sticks of butter, newspapers, a heating pad..." The idea of a shopping list for hostages was amusing in its oddity. I suppose most hostage situations don't drag on very long, but surely some negotiators have had to run out and get crazy violent people random things (like all candy but NOT LICORICE)
  • Mr. Hosokawa - "When had he last written something down? His thoughts were entered, recorded, transmitted. It was in this simple repetition, the rediscovery of his own penmanship, that Mr. Hosokawa found solace." Many of the hostages rediscover something simple or different about life after being taken, and Mr. Hosokawa's small moment of happiness in taking little notes reminded me of a scene from the West Wing - President Bartlet has gone AWOL and they eventually find him aimlessly dawdling through a grocery store. He points out he hasn't gotten to buy his own groceries in years, and it stood out to me as such a strange thought. I wonder - when was the last time President Obama or Michelle went out to buy a gallon of milk? Will it be weird for them when they go back to grocery shopping after the White House? Will it feel refreshing, or mundane?
  • Mr. Hosokawa - "He believed his daughters were not old enough to date and yet clearly by the standards of this country they were old enough to be members of a terrorist organization." OK, so like I said, still have concerns about speaking for others, but the fact that most of the rebels/terrorists were teenagers under the control of a few Generals who were older men definitely added a layer of complexity and nuance to the situation. 
How are you doing? Would you like some tea? Some ice, perhaps? Maybe some candy but absolutely no licorice

- Italy, England, and America, 2001
There's a line near the beginning of the book when the hostages have first been taken, and Roxane Coss tells herself she's only going to take singing jobs in Italy, England, and America, to protect herself from any future such attacks. This gave me pause, as I realized that when Patchett wrote this, 9/11 had not occurred, the Boston Marathon had not been bombed, and the London subway had not been terrorized. I found it frustrating (and arrogant) that her character blamed terror on foreign lands, but it made me sick to my stomach to realize the now vastly expanded reach of such monstrous violence.

- Who will believe that I did not do this on purpose?
This tender line from Mr. Hosokawa, after the accompanist dies:

"What if I am responsible for this death?' he said.
'How could that be possible?'
'It was my birthday. They came here for me.'"

reminded me of the horse Boxer, when he thinks he's accidentally killed a man in Animal Farm. Mr. Hosokawa didn't intend to build a factory in the land, and he knows he led people on, but he is a very sweet man at heart, and he just wanted to hear Roxane sing.

- Polyglot Gen Watanabe reporting for duty
He didn't get mentioned in my plot summary, but Gen Watanabe, Mr. Hosokawa's translator, plays a key role in the novel. The generals and the mediator use him as a translator, and the various hostages require near constant translation to be able to communicate. Here were some of my favorite lines about Gen:
  • on his Swedish being limited to lines from Bergman films in college: "In Swedish, he could only converse on the darkest of subjects."
  • "He would scatter books on the floor and pick them up at random. He read Czeslaw Milosz in Polish, Flaubert in French, Chekhov in Russian, Nabokov in English, Mann in German, then he switched them around: Milosz in French, Flaubert in Russian, Mann in English." #SUPERJELJEL I can barely read Proust in the one other language I do speak!
Here's the next note I wrote to myself in the margins: Patchett writes about music with such reverence, intimacy, intensity, intentionality

I think Patchett might rank right up there with Proust in terms of the way she writes about music. A lot of writers write spectacularly about reading and about writing, and occasionally about art, but not many in my experience write as abundantly and as reverently about music. Here are some of my favorite snippets:
  • After the accompanist has died and the room has been anxiously polled for any secret piano-players to accompany the great Ms. Coss, Kato, a Japanese businessman, sneaks to the piano and pops out a Chopin nocturne - "Now the people in the living room of the vice-presidential mansion listened to Kato with hunger and nothing in their lives had ever fed them so well."
Roxane - "Have you heard the good news?"
Messner, the mediator - "There's good news now?"
Roxane - "Mr. Kato plays the piano."  :-)
  • The General, trying to put his foot down when Ms. Coss gets sheet music delivered from a local priest so that she can practice more - "Nothing belongs to Señorita Coss! She is a prisoner like the rest of you. This is not her home. There is no special mail service that applies only to her. She does not receive packages." ahaghaghaghag. At this point, the house has become pretty pleasant, and the hostage situation is basically for show, but the General is Not pleased that things have gotten so lax. 
How are you now? I told you this post would be a doozy! You can't say I didn't warn you. Why don't you reach your arms high and touch the sky? Then come right back. I'll wrap up soon, I promise! ;)

- WSOD [my widely accepted shorthand for Willing Suspension Of Disbelief]
That brings me to my next note: improbability/impossibility of the situation going on so long (a little magical realist, almost)

I was not surprised to read in the after-book notes that Patchett is a fan of Marquez - there's a definite magical realist quality to the suspended animation hostage situation, and the strangely warm affection it produces. Here are some illustrations of this:
  • when the Generals make Gen type increasingly wild demands on the typewriter they find upstairs in the middle of the night: "What they wanted seemed to Gen to be unformed...Late at night, in deliriums of power and generosity, they demanded that everyone be set free."
  • Carmen, a young female rebel, after she has fallen in love with Gen: "Yes, the Generals wanted something better for the people, but weren't they the people? Would it be the worst thing in the world if nothing happened at all, if they all stayed together in this generous house?"
  • "Who knew that life could be so unexpected? I thought we would be dead by now, or if not dead then regularly begging for our lives, but instead I sit and I consider opera." This reminded me of one of my favorite Virginia Woolf lines: "Was there no safety? No learning by heart the ways of the world? No guide, no shelter, but all was miracle, and leaping from the pinnacle of a tower into the air? Could it be, even for elderly people, that this was life? -startling, unexpected, unknown?"
  • "Wouldn't you say the chances of finding oneself trapped in a house with true genius are remarkably small?" There are several geniuses I would volunteer to be a hostage with. Yo-Yo Ma, Proust, Einstein, Shostakovich, Virginia Woolf. What genius wouldn't you mind being trapped in a house with? (I know, I ended TWO sentences with a preposition, but I didn't feel like fussily rearranging them to avoid it. #getoverit)
A little hostaging, a little chess, maybe later some lawn games!
The General starts playing chess regularly with Mr. Hosokawa, which I found highly amusing and rather endearing. These scenes reminded me of Offred and her 'sinful Scrabbling' with the The Commander (quick, eat those words!)
  • General Benjamin, to Gen:"Please ask Mr. Hosokawa if he would come at his convenience. There would be no need for translation. Here, write down the words for check and checkmate in Japanese. I could trouble myself to learn that much if he would come for a game."
  • "Where before there had been endless hours of work, negotiations and compromises, there were now chess games with a terrorist for whom he felt an accountable fondness."
  • "Because they were both equally talented and equally slow, neither man ever became impatient with the other. Once, Mr. Hosokawa had gone to the small sofa and closed his eyes while he waited for his turn, and when he woke up, General Benjamin was still moving his rook forward and then back across the same three squares, careful to never take his fingers off the horse's head."
  • When one of the youngest rebels wants to join in the reindeer games but doesn't know if he can: "Ishmael stayed because eventually he wanted to play chess with General Benjamin and Mr. Hosokawa, only he wasn't sure if such a thing was actually allowed."
His love was inoperable
In this novel, many men are in love with Ms. Ross. This is not surprising - she is (a) the only adult woman in the house and (2) beautiful and (d) a marvelously talented opera singer. That said, not all of their love is requited. Here's one of my favorite moments, when one of the Russians, Fyodorov, simply Has to express his love but needs Gen to translate:

"Ledbed and Berezovsky were sympathetic, but then they were Russians. They understood the pain of Fyodorov's love."
Gen, to Fyodorov, when he looks ill at the proclamation:"She wants to know what's wrong with you.
'Tell her it's love.
and later, when Roxane has to respond to the offering: "As for the love...
Fyodorov: There is nothing to say. It is a gift. There. Something to give to you. If I had the necklace or a book of paintings I would give you that instead. I would give you that in addition to my love.
Roxane: Then you are too generous with gifts.
Fyodorov: Why should I carry this love with me to the other world? Why not give to you what is yours? so tender! So sweet!

Still there? Where did you get that licorice you're nibbling on? I said NO licorice! Please hand me a chocolate frog and a mug of butterbeer so we can toast and then I can finish this off with a flourish.

Here's the last note I wrote: a kind of strangely pleasant limbo where everyone can be of use
As the captivity continues, we find needs and uses for more and more members of the group, à la a Lost or Survivor-type situation. It reminded me of Montag and the Book of Ecclesiastes. What would you bring to the hostage table? Stand-up comedy? Mad kitchen skills? A killer baritone?

Ruben, on asking Ms. Coss about cooking:
Roxane: "Is there something you would like me to sing?"
Ruben: "That I would never presume to know. Whatever song you choose is the song I have been wanting to hear. I need some advice in the kitchen. Some help."
Roxane, to Gen: "Why would he think I know how to cook? This is some sort of Latin thing, don't you think? I can't even really be offended. It's important to bear the cultural differences in mind. Tell him his scar is looking so much better. I want to say something nice. Thank God that girl of his was still around when it happened. Otherwise he might have asked me to sew his face up for him, too."
Gen, to Roxane: "Should I tell him you don't sew?"
Roxane: "Better he hears it now." The soprano smiled again and waved good-bye to the Vice President. aghaghaghahgahgahgahgahghahag I LOVED this scene. Ruben was like, HALLO LADY! Help me with these chickens? and she was like, Oh No no no sweetie, I'm a DIVA.

Gen, on trying to get access to utensils to prepare said chickens:
General Benjamin: "No knives."
Gen: "Unfortunately, that's a problem. I know very little about cooking myself but I understand that knives are imperative for the preparation of food."
General Benjamin: "No knives."
Gen: "Perhaps then if the knives came with people."

Simon Thibeault, the Frenchman, who it turns out Does know his way around the kitchen, to the rebel teenagers who have been assigned to 'come with the knives':
"We are most grateful,' Simon Thibault said. 'We know nothing about the operation of knives. If entrusted with something as dangerous as knives there would be a bloodbath here in a matter of minutes. Not that we would be killers, mind you. We'd cut off our own fingers, bleed to death right here on the floor."
'Stop it,' Ishmael said, and giggled."
and later, after Ishmael threatens to shoot Simon over slicing an eggplant: "May I inquire as to the state of the onions or will you threaten to shoot me?" OK, so late spoiler alert: Ishmael is one of the first rebels shot at the end of the novel, and I swear, for an instant, my heart stopped.

Here is a list of the things that the hostages bring to the situation:
Simon Thibeault - cooking
Gen - translation, knowledge
Roxane, Kato - music
Lothar Falken - running
Hosokawa - chess
Ruben - hosting
Father Arguedas - confession

It has been such a pleasure spending this time with you, dear bloggists (even if you Did eat the licorice that I clearly told you Not to) and I will leave you with these parting thoughts. What happens when you realize you don't want to be rescued?

Happiness in captivity
  • Father Arguedas - "He did not pray to be rescued at all."
  • Gen, to himself: "The woman you love is a girl who dresses as a boy and she lives in a village in a jungle, the name of which you are not allowed to know, not that knowing the name would be particularly helpful in trying to find it. The woman you love puts her gun beside a blue gravy boat at night so that you can teach her to read. She came into your life through an air-conditioner vent and how she will leave is the question that keeps you awake in the few free moments you have to sleep."
  • Carmen - "Ask yourself, would it be so awful if we all stayed here in this beautiful house?"
  • "Ignacio, Guadalupe, and Humberto were at the breakfast table cleaning guns, a puzzle of disconnected metal spreading out on newspapers before them as they rubbed oil into each part. Thibault sat at the table with them, reading cookbooks."
  • Messner - "More than any other negotiation Messner had ever been involved with, he found that he didn't really care who won this one. He had never felt sorry for the captors before."
  • Gen - But all of them could not possibly include Carmen. It could not include Beatriz or Ishmael or Cesar. When Gen scanned the list he couldn’t think of one he would be willing to give up, even the bullies and the fools. How had he come to want to save all of them? The people who followed him around with loaded guns. How had he fallen in love with so many people?
Patchett plays with that incongruity; the idea that it is perhaps only after we are captured and imprisoned that we can truly feel free. And yet that freedom is insecure, imperfect, and of necessity, ephemeral. But think just for a moment -- isn't it true that we are all of us sometimes wishing we could be held hostage with the things and people we love or could come to love?

Here are a final few stunning sentences for you to savor before I leave you:
  • Maybe music could be transferred, devoured, owned.
  • Hosokawa - "He believed that life, true life, was something that was stored in music."
  • Through the open windows came the raucous sawing of insect life. makes me think of the Peepers! They're BAAAAACK, folks! And the peepers keep on Peeping! Showing no signs that they were SLEEPInG!
  • She was reckless and brave, so great was her joy.
  • Instructions were given, those lying down were to remain quiet and still, those standing up should check those lying down for weapons and for secretly being the president. not quite zeugma (my all-time favorite literary device) but CLOSe! any secret presidents among you, bloggists? perhaps a sly Zemblan king or two?
I wish you all a wonderful weekend, replete with sunshine, warmth, gaiety, and relaxation. May you all be reckless and brave, so great is your joy. 

Onwards to Travels with Charley. Or maybe it's Ludrigger. Or Smolliver. Something like that!

1 comment:

  1. I understand why you mean about the author speaking for her characters wrongly - it's like the Woolite commercial that says"We all love how dark clothes make us feel" - No, I don't!
    Great explanation for a rather fantastically confusing novel. It would be hard to cook without KNIVES! I have enjoyed my licorice and high-fived my cat. Thank you for doing this - reading your blog is like music for me.