Current Affairs, Orange Prize for Fiction

Bel Canto – Ann Patchett – 9/10

“I was taught to love beautiful things. I had a language in which to consider beauty”

(from the blurb) Kidnappers storm an international gathering hosted by a poor Latin American country to promote trade. Unfortunately, their intended target, the President, has stayed home to watch his favourite soap. The takeover settles into a siege, bringing together an unlikely assortment of hostages.

I picked this up at my favourite cheap second-hand book haunt, the title and author both unfamiliar to me, on the strength of an Orange Prize victory in 2002 and that the plot involves an opera singer. I was encouraged to read it by Dorothy Of Books and Bicycles, Emily Brewer and Lizzy Siddal and was able to do so over Easter weekend at the in-laws’ in Edinburgh, mostly in front of a gas fire and under a fleecy blanket!

It wasn’t a terribly challenging read, but the farcical plot (initially unappealing) turned out to simply be a construct in order to bring together an eclectic and fascinating cast of characters. Patchett primarily gives the focus of the narrative to the translator, which is particularly appropriate as he is required for almost every character interaction. The multilingual setting seems unnecessary but actually limiting the characters’ communication in this situation where they are all physically confined together is rather clever as no mass interaction is possible, so we are treated to a story which stretches over several months but is told in vignettes and relationships rather than events.

Patchett has been careful with her characters and it shows. The soprano is un-stereotypically generous and sweet, not the diva we expect. The translator is a quiet, unassuming and invaluable man: “Gen was an extension, an invisible self”. The Vice President of the sorry little country is a wonderful character – on the verge of farce, but tender in his reminiscences of his time with his wife, and a dutiful host, continuing to clean and cook throughout the hostage situation. Carmen, the beautiful terrorist, is another shy, beautiful person in an unfortunate situation. Simon Thibault, the French ambassador usurped for the post of ambassador to Spain, loves his wife so single-mindedly – Patchett wrote some beautifully romantic lines for him.

The author must be multilingual or else she had access to a translator who had the rare skill of conveying what it is like to operate in multiple languages:

“Conversations in more than two languages felt awkward and unreliable, like speaking with a mouthful of cotton and Novocaine”

“If his concentration lapsed even for a moment it all became a blur of consonants, hard Cyrillic letters bouncing like hail off a tin roof”

“Gen, in his genius for languages, was often at a loss for what to say when left with only his own words…He had the soul of a machine and was only capable of motion when someone else turned the key… Sitting alone in his apartment with books and tapes, he would pick up languages the way other men picked up women, with smooth talk and then later, passion… He read Czeslaw Milosz in Polish, Flaubert in French, Chekhov in Russian… then he switched them around: Milosz in French, Flaubert in Russian, Mann in English.”

She also picks up the beauty of music, the power of a talented singer to force anyone to appreciate the music:

“All of the love and the longing a body can contain was spun into not more than two and a half minutes of song, and when she came to the highest notes it seemed that all they had been given in their lives and all they had lost came together and made a weight that was almost impossible to bear.”

The primary ending is a little surprising but I found it fitting, but I was disappointed by the prologue. It seemed an unnecessary piece of romantic indulgence, bringing together two people who did not belong together.

This novel touched on two of my great loves – opera and languages – and so my reaction to it is perhaps predictable, but this is a beautiful novel, not heavy or dark but emotionally refreshing.

Additional info:
I purchased this in paperback from the Notting Hill Book and Comic Exchange
Publisher: Harper Perennial, 318 pages (paperback)
Order this from Amazon* 
* this is an affiliate link – I will be paid a small percentage of your purchase price if you use these links, which goes towards giveaways.

10 thoughts on “Bel Canto – Ann Patchett – 9/10”

  1. We read this in my book group some years ago and were unexpectedly moved by it. It is still one of the books to which discussion returns which is indicative of how powerful we found it.

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