Bel Canto Summary

Ann Patchett

Bel Canto

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Bel Canto Summary

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The title of American author Ann Patchett’s award-winning novel, Bel Canto (2001) is based on an opera term which means “beautiful singing.” The novel takes place during an event modeled on the Lima Crisis, a real-life 1996 hostage situation at the Peruvian home of an ambassador to Japan.

The book features an ensemble of characters; the two principal figures are Katsumi Hosowaka and Roxane Coss. Hosowaka, a prominent Japanese business mogul and opera fan, is being honored at a birthday party thrown by Peruvian dignitaries and diplomats. Coss is an opera singer invited to perform at the party.

At the beginning of the novel, Coss arrives in the small country to perform at a birthday party for Hosowaka. The country’s dignitaries have a reason for throwing the party: they want Hosowaka’s large electronics company to build a factory in their country. Hosowaka, however, has no intention of building such a factory. Instead, he just wants to see a performance from Coss, one of his favorite opera singers.

Coss performs a set, but after her final song, the party is interrupted by a group of armed terrorists who demand to speak with the president. The president, however, is at home watching his favorite soap opera program on television. The terrorists, unable to speak to the president, have, nevertheless, already committed to their plot by breaking the law and disrupting the party. Unwilling to back down now, the terrorists remain at the party, causing a standoff and major hostage situation.

On the following day, the terrorists come to terms with Joachim Messner from the Red Cross who has been sent to defuse the situation. Messner enters into negotiations, convincing the terrorists to release the women, along with anyone who is sick and anyone who is not a prominent dignitary or mogul. The exception is Coss, who is forced to stay. One of her fellow musicians is a diabetic, but despite being a sick person and therefore, allowed to leave, the man decides to stay to protect Coss. Unfortunately, without access to insulin, he dies.

After the initial negotiation, the terrorists and the hostages get to know each other. Because most of the terrorists are teenagers or younger, the hostages begin to care for them as parents, in some cases. Meanwhile, most of the conversations have to go through Hosowaka’s interpreter, Gen Watanabe, because of the language barriers between so many of the people in attendance. Both the terrorists and the hostages find joy in Coss’s singing. Discovering that one of the hostages is an accomplished pianist, she takes to practicing.

Love affairs begin to brew among the terrorists and hostages, most notably between Hosowaka and his idol, Coss, and between Watanabe and a young female terrorist named Carmen. Other relationships, platonic and otherwise, blossom over the next four months. For example, Watanabe and the leader of the terrorists, General Benjamin, gather regularly to play chess. Ruben Iglesias, the country’s vice president, cares for one of the youngest terrorists, Ishmael, like a son. Iglesias considers adopting Ishmael once this is all over. Coss gives singing lessons to the young terrorist Cesar after discovering he has a beautiful voice and a great deal of natural talent.

A sense of normalcy develops between everyone trapped there, as the hostages are eventually allowed outside every day to exercise, play European football, and garden. In fact, the only person there who seems to wish for the hostage crisis to end is the ambassador to France, Simon Thibault. Thibault deeply misses his wife and so, unlike most everyone else, is looking forward to an end to his “captivity.” In fact, most of the hostages don’t even think of their situation as “captivity” anymore, as bonds continue to grow and deepen.

Meanwhile, Messner tries to convince General Benjamin to surrender. He says if the terrorists don’t give themselves up, the government will send in troops to kill all of the terrorists. The terrorists, however, are certain that if they surrender, they will be sentenced to death anyway. At best, they will live out the rest of their lives in prison. The hostages seem to think that it is better to enjoy however many days they possibly can of the strange paradise they’ve created for themselves, rather than give it all up for either a life in prison or no life at all.

Finally, the government becomes fed up with the situation. Government soldiers storm the compound, killing all of the terrorists. When they are about to shoot Carmen, however, Hosowaka throws himself between Carmen and the bullet, killing himself instead. Though they have both lost the loves of their life, Coss and Watanabe decide to marry each other, having grown close through both their harrowing experience inside the mansion walls and also their shared sense of loss.

Bel Canto is a surprising and beautiful examination of the human bonds created amid even the strangest and most unlikely conditions. Patchett received both the Orange Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, two of the most prestigious literary awards in the world, for Bel Canto.