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Bel Canto

Ann Patchett

Chapter One

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Chapter One, page 2

page 1 of 2

Summary

Katsumi Hosokawa, the head of Japan’s largest electronics company, is celebrating his birthday at a party thrown for him by the government of an unnamed poor South American country, which hopes he will open a factory in their country. The birthday party is being held in the mansion of the vice president of the country.

Opera diva Roxanne Coss has just finished performing her last song for the party’s entertainment when her accompanist makes a motion to kiss her. Still enraptured with the music they’ve heard, many in the audience imagine that they are doing the same. At that moment, all the lights in the room go off. At first the characters are unconcerned, assuming the darkness is simply due to a power failure. They continue to applaud and to imagine the kiss they cannot see. Hosokawa, the narrator tells us, has been in love with the singer’s voice for many years, and only agreed to attend this party in his honor in order to hear her sing in person. He has no intention of building a factory in the country, but he couldn’t turn down the opportunity to be close to the diva.

The narrator explains that Hosokawa first heard and fell in love with opera on his eleventh birthday. The year was 1954, and money was tight, so Hosokawa’s outing to the opera with his father was especially precious. Opera might be too complicated for children in normal circumstances, but since World War II had only recently ended in Japan’s defeat, children were able to understand the kind of dark stories dramatized in opera. Hosokawa was intensely moved by the performance of Rigoletto, and his love of opera stayed with him into adulthood. Hosokawa worked hard, rose to prominence, married, and started a family, but it was only when he listened to opera that he fully felt his own capacity for love. When his eldest daughter bought him a recording of Roxanne Coss for his birthday, he fell in love with her voice, amazed at the simultaneous control and recklessness of her singing.

One of the men at the birthday party is Simon Thibault, the French ambassador to this South American country. Standing in the darkness, Thibault notices many little lights shining from beneath one of the doors. He realizes that these are flashlights, and suddenly understands that they are all in grave danger. He hugs his wife. Moments later, the lights come on.

The narrator digresses to explain the preparations for the beautiful party—the food prepared for the banquet, the arrangement of the flowers, the creation of the place cards, the hanging of the famous painting. A great deal of effort and money were expended by this poor country in an attempt to woo a man who has no intention of being wooed. The narrator explains that the country’s president, Masuda, is absent from the party because at the last minute he decided he could not bear to miss an important episode of his favorite soap opera.

After the lights go on, three generals and their band of young terrorists rush in. They are members of an organization devoted to the overthrow of the repressive government and the liberation of the people. The guests think of fleeing, but quickly realize there is no escape. They all believe they will be killed by the terrorists. The narrator tells us that in fact, the hostages will survive and the terrorists will be killed.

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