Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
This book broke my heart, put it back together, filled it with Love and broke it again into a million little pieces. The book itself, with the unwarranted, cold viciousness of an inanimate object, unrelenting, unfeeling, without any regard for me as a human being complete with emotions, hopes, dreams, or expectations, this book mangled everything I wanted and knew would never be; maimed and crippled everything that would make the false utopia the perfect setting and situation. This book with its unfeeling pages and cold, dark print annihilated the dream, but still managed to, while leaving me crying, devastated, filled me with the utmost sense of purpose and hope and love.
Ann Patchett is my god.
With little dialogue Patchett creates a world in which a positive outcome is impossible, but characters and readers together desire their false utopia to be; to remain untouched from outside influence and allowed to exist in perfect harmony within the outside world. But logic and reason lurk somewhere behind the hope and love and crumbling barriers subtly reminding characters and readers (mostly readers) that this will never be. The Establishment will make a move that will not be counteracted, or will not be counteracted well, and all the study of chess will be for naught. Our heroes and favorites will not get what they want or what they deserve and others will eventually be reunited with people who love them and are waiting on the other side.
The third person omniscient narrator tells us everything we need to know about our heroes and lets us identify with them, to understand them, as they come to understand each other. We understand the importance or lack of importance each one puts on his or her life; we understand their hopes and dreams and desires; we understand their worries and what wearies them. We come to love them as they come to love each other. Despite language barriers, despite political barriers, despite national barriers all our characters (and the reader) are brought together by something that transcends each of these: music.
Opera binds them together as their freedoms are taken away. Music is cherished and uplifting. It calms, soothes and churns up feelings otherwise unrecognized within each captive and captor. Each character, despite their dissimilar goals, are brought together because of the one mode of expression that does not recognize politics or language. Even though the operas are in a number of different languages, the woman singing them doesn’t actually know any of the languages, but her passion, her artistry, her gift defies them to try and not understand what is behind those foreign words.
The only character who does know each language in which she sings, is also the only character who fully understands everything that is going on. Gen, the translator. While Gen knows that the singer does not connect with the language, he does understand what is driving her; he understands that fundamental passion and emotion found behind the lyrics and within the music and he, too, appreciates what she has given everyone, hostage and sentinel.
Because of this common ground and a lack of direction, lines become blurred and relationships are formed. The captors and the captives easily forget that they are in opposition and see each other as we all should see one another: as people. Within their false utopia sons discover fathers, teachers find protégés, men and women see men as men and women as women, brothers and sisters, comrades, teachers and students spring up and they are no longer enemies or adversaries.
What struck me in particular was something I am having trouble pinpointing. It may have been the language, it may have been the characters and their relationships, probably it was a combination of both, but what struck me the hardest is the Love in Bel Canto. This novel is dripping, heavy, saturated with Love. Love oozes from every chapter, building slowly, cautiously, unseen, at first, until it is blossoming. It radiates off the pages weighing down your soul and filling your heart until you think you won’t be able to handle it anymore, except then your heart expands little by little, ever so gradually that you don’t even notice, until Grinch-like your heart is three sizes larger than it had been when you first lifted the book from the Whole Foods shelf; thus reminding you that Love begets Love in such a way that is indescribable. As poets and preachers like to remind their readers and flocks: Love is the one thing you can give away and end up with more of.
I have admired Patchett ever since I heard about her bookstore in Nashville, TN. When the independent and the box book stores in town shut down (not because people weren’t buying books, but because they closed at the corporate level) leaving Nashville without a bookstore (much like another town I know), Patchett knew that was unacceptable and opened one of her own. She proved herself to be a classy lady by having heaps of fun on “The Colbert Report” and leaving Stephen Colbert speechless. Now I have read one of her books and I am stunned. I am blown away by its loveliness and its beauty. I have held the physical book to my chest and cried; I cry for Carmen and Mr. Hosokawa; I cry for the boy Cesar; I cry for the Thibaults; I cry for Messner; I cry for the poor, misguided military surrounding the wall of the Vice President’s house unaware of what has transpired within; I cry because they have reached a place humanity claims to want to be only for it to be ripped apart. I cry not only because lives are taken, but because they are forgotten to the world, but not to those who knew them. I cry for the accompanist, who has no name, even though Roxanne must know it, his name is lost.
Patchett has managed to create a group of people who are no less real to me than my friends, my lover, my family sleeping on the other side of the house; this book has become as dear to me as they. She has given me an interesting platform to ponder the paradoxes of life; a reason to question what is truly important. She has provided me with a jumping off point to consider the world and what sort of person I am in it; she has given us Utopia; she has given us a reason to live; she has given us a bel canto.
Recommend: I will lend it to you, but you must give it back.
Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto
The epilogue is, however, a little curious. It is uncertain how much time has gone by and it is unclear what motivates Gen and Roxanne. Are we to take them at their word? Or do they see the other as representing something and someone else? Will they be happy? Will they tire of what they’ve created? Will they eventually go their separate ways? This pairing was one I predicted early in the novel and wondered about before other relationships were solidified and realized. It wasn’t one I championed for, but it was one I saw had potential. While I understand any number of their possible motivations, my heart goes out to Carmen and Mr. Hosokawa and I long for them. Hosokawa’s simple loving act to shield Carmen, Gen’s cry for his “wife”, Carmen’s willingness to help Roxanne and Hosokawa have a “moment”; they are truly the heart of this book and they are the best and I mourn for them.
Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto
Unfortunately I am posting this from Cape Cod and, back in July, I took my copy of Bel Canto, purchased last winter at the Medford Whole Foods, back to my parents’ house in Central Massachusetts. I should be returning there in a week or so and then will be able to share some of my favorite parts with you, as I am trying to do with Isn’t It Pretty To Think So? and the other books I still have with me.
I can’t believe I forgot about Bel Canto. I really am amazed. Especially since I sat out there on the porch my grandfather built in the late forties and cried my eyes out. I thought about everyone I love and why I love them and how empty and cold my life would be without them and I missed specific people so fiercely I’m surprised they couldn’t feel it (or maybe they could, they just didn’t ring me up to find out what was wrong). I’ve been a little reclusive this summer, for many reasons, but I don’t want to be; and, rereading what I wrote after reading this novel has reminded me why I don’t want to disconnect from my friends, from the people I love. Henry Miller’s rules for writers, emphasized putting writing first as well as putting people first. A contradiction to be sure, but one I understand and one I wish I were better at accomplishing. But I have faith that I will figure all this out and soon.