Saturday, July 08, 2006

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett chose a difficult subject for Bel Canto. Her interest was on recreating the complex relationships between captives and their captors. I understand that the situation which evolves in these cases, by which the captives begin to have strong feelings for those who hold them prisoner, is referred to as the Stockholm Syndrome. (The word “worship” is usually included in any shorthand explanation of the syndrome.) Patchett weaves a beautiful story around variations on such themes. It is a testament to her gentle finesse that what seems implausible when you read it is summary on the book jacket, plays out beautifully. This is a first class love story about several doomed and tragic loves between a group of hostages in a Central American coup, and the wide eyed revolutionaries who guard them.

The revolutationaries come in, tough and carrying guns. They make demands which are ill considered and which the reader knows will never be accepted. Government forces surround the building. Negotiations begin, but unfold slowly. Months pass. Several relationships are formed, between a Japanese translator and a young Indian revolutionary, and a Japanese zaibatsu head and the eponymous Beautiful Singer. The reader knows how this will end. We are told exactly what will happen more than once. But, like the guests of this tragic operetta, we forget. We are lulled into the slow rhythm of south American days, the charms of budding romance, and the spell of Patchett’s seductive characterizations and languorous verbiage. When the inevitable conclusion explodes in upon the reader, the results are powerful.

Good work, Ms. Patchett. I resisted reading this novel for quite a while, but I’m impressed with your deft touch, your compassionate eye, and your ability to tell effectively the kind of implausible tale which seems to so often occur. It is difficult to take that truth which is ‘stranger than fiction’ and wrest from it a believable story. You have do so, and I’m impressed.

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