The days go by, but time seems to stand still for the hostages and the terrorists.
This South American country is blanketed by a garua, or dense fog, for several months each year. One morning, the terrorists and the hostages find that fog has completely enveloped the vice president’s mansion. When they look out the windows, they can see almost nothing of the outside world. The combination of entrapment in the house, necessary idleness, and dense fog affects people’s sense of time. The narrator says, “The day no longer progressed in its normal, linear fashion but instead every hour circled back to its beginning, every moment was lived over and over again. Time, in the manner they had all understood it, was over.” People feel as if they’re waiting in a train station.
The hostages and the terrorists begin to enjoy some aspects of their lives in the mansion. With Watanabe’s help, Hosokawa starts learning Spanish. The terrorists continue to march around with their guns, but the hostages recognize that most of the terrorists are children, and act in a parental manner toward them. Iglesias, the vice president, sees the badly worn boots of one of the youngest terrorists, Ishmael, and tells him to replace them with a pair of tennis shoes from his wife’s closet. The terrorists find a globe and ask the hostages to show them where they are from. These terrorists, young and unworldly, are impressed by the roomful of international visitors.
Most of the terrorists have come from poor rural or jungle villages, and the opulence of the vice president’s house amazes them. One day they find the television and stare at their reflections in the screen. Some of them have seen broken televisions before, but none of them have ever seen one that works. When Thibault, thinking to amuse them, wanders into the room and turns on the television with the remote control, the terrorists are so alarmed that they release the safeties on their guns, and one of the terrorists slams Thibault up against wall. When they realize that he simply turned on the television, they put down their guns. Watching TV becomes a consuming pastime of theirs.
During this time, the hostages discover that two of the terrorists are girls. Beatriz and Carmen have concealed their gender under army caps and fatigues, but once their secret comes out, the hostages soften even more in their feelings for the terrorists. In general, everyone feels affectionate. The vice president and a compatriot, Oscar Mendoza, banter about their past love exploits and their infatuation with Coss. Coss starts to have feelings for Hosokawa, around whom she feels quiet and calm.
After about two weeks of captivity, Coss decides that if she will be a hostage for an extended period of time, which appears to be the case, she needs to start practicing her singing again. Before she can begin, she needs a new accompanist. Watanabe and Iglesias ask if anyone can play the piano. Finally, Tetsuya Kato, an executive in Hosokawa’s company who is known as a good numbers man, comes forward.
The narrator explains that in Japan, Kato always rose early and practiced the piano for an hour before going to work. He always kept his passion for the piano a secret. Now Kato sits down and plays. Everyone in the room listens and is moved. “Encore,” the priest calls out after Kato finishes his first piece. “Encore,” Carmen, one of the two female terrorists, repeats. Kato looks at Carmen when she says this, and as if in response to her request, plays another piece, and then another. Carmen is moved. “No one had ever played a piece of music for her before,” the narrator says. At the end of the chapter, Kato and Coss agree that they will practice together every day.
The fog that settles over the vice president’s mansion separates the mansion physically and symbolically from the outside world. Time stops marching forward and seems to stand still or even circle back on itself, which deepens the impression that the people in the mansion inhabit a separate world.
Patchett suggests that intense emotion does not exist easily in settled, mild lives. It takes a strong character, perhaps even an artistic genius like Roxanne Coss, to express intense emotion publicly and in normal life. Most of the characters in Bel Canto keep their passions hidden, or at least cordoned off from the rest of their lives. For instance, in Japan Kato hid his talent as a pianist because he considered it important to have “another life, a secret life,” separate from his work. Only when he is released from his normal life does he allow other people to see his passion. The vice president’s mansion is like a protective cocoon in which Kato can safely open his heart to others.
Even the protection of the mansion would not have made Kato spontaneously reveal his talent. The particular request for a pianist was needed. Without that request, the narrator says, Kato probably never would have come forward. This suggests that the impulse toward public artistic expression is fragile and easily lost.
Artistic impression is also a way to wordlessly express feelings that are too deep or painful to talk about. When Kato plays for the group in the mansion, he thinks of his wife and children asleep in bed. As he plays, he expresses the “love and loneliness that each of them felt, that no one had brought himself to speak of.” Kato’s audience listen “with hunger” to the music.
Coss’s singing and Kato’s playing makes the already-softened terrorists and hostages feel more strongly that they are living in a timeless, fantastical place.
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