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Bel Canto

Ann Patchett

Chapter Two

Chapter One

Chapter Three

Summary

The night passes. By morning, no one has been killed, and people relax a little and start to whisper to one another. Later in the morning, the terrorists round up the hostages. They fear they will be killed, but it turns out they are being brought to the bathroom. The only person who seems to be in danger is Coss’s accompanist, Christopf, who looks pale and ill.

The narrator digresses to tell the story of Simon Thibault, a French ambassador, and his wife, Edith. For decades, Simon took his wife for granted. There were so many elegant women in Paris that his wife didn’t seem exceptional. But when he was stationed in what he and his wife call “this godforsaken country,” Simon fell utterly in love with her all over again. Now his heart leaps for her like it did when they were young.

The chatter among the hostages has increased so much that General Alfredo shoots at the ceiling in order to restore order. A moment later, someone knocks on the door. Joachim Messner, a Swiss representative of the Red Cross vacationing in the country, has been called in to negotiate between the government and the terrorists. He behaves calmly, as if he is chatting with his neighbors, not negotiating with terrorists. Through the help of Hosokawa’s translator, Gen Watanabe, Messner and the generals agree that all ill prisoners and women prisoners will be exchanged for food and other supplies the terrorists need.

Messner sees the wound on the vice president’s face and says it should be treated. Esmeralda, the governess for the vice president’s children, gets a needle and thread and gives them to Messner. But when Messner’s first attempt to stitch up the vice president’s face proves awkward, Esmeralda takes over and stitches Messner’s face as if it were the most natural thing in the world. When she is done, the generals tell her and Messner to lie down. Messner says, “I don’t lie down,” and leaves.

The narrator briefly describes Monsignor Rolland, a high-ranking church official who has a good chance of becoming bishop one day. The narrator also describes Father Arguedas, a young priest and an opera-lover. When Arguedas was younger, his response to opera was so intense that he assumed it must be sinful. But after an older priest reassured him that it was not sinful, he decided his joy was a gift from God. Arguedas was able to attend Coss’s performance because a favorite cousin of the vice president pulled strings for him. Now, Father Arguedas is concerned about the young terrorists, and he suggests that one of them take a nap.

Victor Fyodorov, a high-ranking Soviet official, has been craving a cigarette since being taken hostage. He decides he can’t wait any longer, and he lights up. One of the terrorists rushes over, but he is not prepared to kill Fyodorov for smoking a cigarette, and after a few drags, Fyodorov puts out his cigarette and the terrorist puts away his gun.

The narrator tells the story of Ruben Iglesias, the vice president of the country. Iglesias rose up from poverty, putting himself through law school by working as a clerk and a janitor. He married into a prominent family after he impregnated the daughter of one of the partners in his law firm. This family pushed him forward, and he rose through the ranks until eventually he was appointed vice president. This last appointment was largely due to the fact that the president, a short man, didn’t want a vice president who towered over him, and Iglesias was sufficiently short.

Soon Messner returns, and the generals prepare to free the ill, the women, and the workers. When Messner mistakes the captors for a more ruthless terrorist organization, the generals are offended, saying that they are reasonable men. The terrorists also decide to let the clerics go. Monsignor Rolland makes the sign of the cross and prepares to leave, but Father Arguedas asks to stay. Father Arguedas’s noble gesture infuriates the monsignor, who realizes that the lowly priest has shown himself to be a far braver man than he has, and by doing so in a circumstance that is sure to become highly public, has probably also ruined the monsignor’s chances of becoming bishop. Simon and Edith Thibault hug each other. Then those who have been freed leave as if, the narrator says, they are walking away from a burning building or a sinking ship.

Analysis

In the second chapter, the hostages make tentative gestures toward normalcy. They talk to one another, use the bathroom, light cigarettes. The potential for disaster and death is always close at hand—a gun could go off accidentally, a trigger-happy or angry terrorist could shoot, government troops could break in at any moment—but the characters continue to live life. Patchett writes, “If what a person wants is his life, he tends to be quiet about wanting anything else. Once the life begins to seem secure, one feels the freedom to complain.”

The proximity of danger intensifies life for Simon Thibault, whose love for his wife is sparked again when he moves to the dangerous South American country. The Thibaults are reminiscent of the character Hans Castorp in The Magic Mountain, the novel by Thomas Mann that inspired Patchett’s own. In The Magic Mountain, Castorp’s perceptions of the world and his sexual desires intensify when he goes to a sanitarium. For Thibault, the normalcy and comfort of life in Paris threaten marital excitement, and the harshness and strangeness of a new country revives it.

In Chapter Two, Patchett begins to add color and nuance to her characterization of the terrorists. Some of the terrorists are children, and the generals in charge of the terrorists care about being seen as reasonable, even though they are prepared to kill civilians to achieve their goals. This point is illustrated with dark humor when the generals take offense at being mistaken for a more ruthless terrorist organization.

The character Joachim Messner, who makes his first appearance in this chapter, is the one person who can come and go at will. He reminds the hostages, the terrorists, and the readers of the existence of a world outside the vice president’s mansion, and of the existence of the government troops. Messner would like to protect both the hostages and the terrorists, but he cannot. Like the narrator, Messner serves the function of a chorus in Greek tragedy, punctuating the drama and reminding everyone that fate will have its way with the characters eventually.

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