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Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Bel Canto

sidneycordie, April 3, 2014

Bel Canto is a 2001 novel by American author Ann Patchett, published by Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. It was awarded both the Orange Prize for Fiction and PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. It is a story about finding passion in the face of danger. It takes place in an unknown South American country at the Vice President’s mansion. A world-renown opera singer has been brought there to sing for the head of a Japanese technology company in hopes that he will build a site in their country. Right as the night starts to get entertaining, a swarm of 18 terrorists storm the house and take it over in hopes to kidnap the President. Alas, the President is not there like they thought and they have to stay to figure out their next step. This novel is perfect for anyone who likes suspense and/or getting deeper into the South American past. This book would definitely be four and a half stars on my top 10 book list.
As previously stated, the book takes place in an unknown country in South America. It can be inferred that the country is Peru by one hint, which is when the terrorists talk about their native language being Quechua. The reader never learns the exact time that the story is taking place, but you can tell it is in the not-too-distant past (most likely in the nineties). Although it is fiction, the novel is based on a true story.
The eighteen terrorists that came for the President realize he isn’t there so they stay for a lot longer than expected. They are trapped for months and things/events happen that one would never expect. Hostages become friends, terrorist and hostage become lovers, but most importantly, hostages and terrorists become friends and family. In an interview about the use of isolation in her novel, Patchett said, “I’m much more of a utopian than a dystopian. I find that basically when people are removed from society, they find happiness. One review of Bel Canto said, ‘Instead of Lord of the Flies, it was Lord of the Butterflies.’” She also goes to say that the idea of the idea of how the normal hostage and captivity situation was flipped topsy-turvy by making the group develop a relationship and yearn to stay together.
In Bel Canto, Patchett uses characterization, symbolism, and point of view to create the theme of the underlying human quality to create passion in the face of death to comment on the idea that the apparent is not the same as reality. The symbols of the vice presidency, the weather, and the mansion are the most apparent symbols. The importance of the Vice President compared to the unimportance of the President helps to illustrate the corruption in their government. While the President is at home watching Soap Operas, the Vice President is doing all the work by trying to get an important figure to build in his country. The use of the weather as a symbol is also used. The shift from chronic fog and mist to sunshine helps to represent the shift in the characters’ attitudes and how they realize that the captors are not bad people; they are just very devout to their cause. This illustrates the idea that the guise that their culture is developing about them is not true and that a lot of people are unhappy with the country’s government/policies. Lastly, the use of the Vice President’s mansion is used as a symbol to represent assumed truth versus reality. The people on the outside are in constant belief that the people on the inside are in grave danger and absolutely need to escape, while in reality they are actually enjoying their time in the house. On the other side, the inside believes that they will be able to stay there forever and become a new family or that the police will eventually leave them alone.
Characterization is also used to create the theme of the underlying human quality to create passion in the face of danger. To start, the kidnappers are a poor group of citizens that want their rights protected and their family/friends freed. This makes the terrorists seem more sympathetic because they have a good cause and they are reasonable and caring towards their captives. Second, the use of Gen Watanabe as the official translator helps to create the theme as well. He helps to show how reasonable and caring the captors really are behind their tough façade. They are willing to communicate with as many people as possible and actually become friends with Gen Watanabe.
Point of view is the last key to developing the theme. The point of view helps to show what is going on in the minds of others and what is actually going on. When the speaker is objective, the reader only sees what looks like a terrifying hostage situation compared to when the speaker is in third person omniscient point of view, that objectivity is gone and the reader knows the truth.
I think that another book to read in hand with this one is In the Time of The Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. These two books go nicely together seeing as they are both about a darker time in South American history. At the same time though, they look deeper into the motives of the so called criminals to discover if they really were all that bad. Also, they both look at how the governments would cast away one idea or subject in order to get what they needed done and/or accomplished. All in all, Bel Canto is a beautifully written book that looks into the darker areas of South American culture. Ann Patchett does a very nice job of making sure not to criticize this government though, but of telling a story. This novel is a wonderful catalyst for the theme of the underlying human quality to create passion in the face of death.
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