1. Why did Patchett title her novel Bel Canto? What is the significance of opera in the novel?
Bel canto is a term from opera that means “beautiful song.” The novel opens and closes with opera. In the beginning of the novel, Roxanne Coss has just finished singing at Katsumi Hosokawa’s birthday party when terrorists burst in and take everyone hostage. At the end of the novel, Coss is giving voice lessons to Cesar, a young terrorist, when government troops storm the mansion and kill the terrorists. In between, the lives of the hostages and the terrorists are punctuated by beautiful song. Opera serves as a metaphor for life’s beauty, which persists even in the face of death. Opera also stands for the strength of art against brute power. Before Coss starts singing each day, the generals control the situation. But once she begins to sing, her music takes over, and the hostages and terrorists are drawn together as they listen to her. When two of the generals say they ought to be in charge of when Coss does and doesn’t sing, General Benjamin tells them they should first try to control a bird.
Opera also gives the novel its form. Like many operas, Bel Canto is a story of passionate, otherworldly love affairs that end in tragic death.
2. At the beginning of Bel Canto, the narrator tells us that the hostages will live and the terrorists will die. How does this revelation change the way we read the novel?
From the very beginning of Bel Canto, the narrator tells us how the story will end. In Chapter One, the narrator says, “It was the unspoken belief of everyone who was familiar with this organization and with the host country that they were all as good as dead, when in fact it was the terrorists who would not survive the ordeal.” By telling us the ending, Patchett forces us to pay attention to the relationships between the characters, rather than the unfolding of the plot. Unencumbered by nervousness about whether or not the story will end happily, we are free to pay attention to details and think carefully about the relationships that develop.
If Bel Canto is read as an allegory for life in general, knowing that the terrorists will die stands for humans’ knowledge that everyone, including themselves, will die one day. The inevitability of death does not cause us to despair, just as the inevitability of the terrorists’ deaths does not cause us to throw down the novel in disgust. Instead, we take a keen interest in our own lives, just as we take a keen interest in characters whose fate we already know.
3. Describe Watanabe and Carmen’s relationship with language. How does language inhibit and ultimately help them?
Watanabe and Carmen are the two characters who have the most trouble expressing themselves. Watanabe is a language genius who helps everyone else communicate, but when it comes to speaking for himself, he is often at a loss. Carmen may be a terrorist, but she is a shy terrorist. She is so nervous about asking Watanabe for language lessons that she must fortify herself by praying to her patron saint, Saint Rose, and asking her to fill her mouth with the words she needs.
Carmen says to Watanabe, “‘Teach me to read. . . . Teach me to make my letters in Spanish.’” At their language lessons, “They spoke of vowels and consonants. They spoke of diphthongs and possessives. She copied letters into a notebook.” As they work on these basic elements of language, Carmen and Watanabe gradually gain the means of expressing themselves. Their growing ability to communicate culminates when they make love. When they are together, they are no longer as shy as they are during the day. They are confident and expressive. From the language lessons, both Carmen and Watanabe gain the ability to speak to each other heart to heart.
1. Ann Patchett has said that she was inspired to write Bel Canto after reading about a real four-month hostage siege that took place in Peru in 1996. What are some of the realistic elements in Bel Canto? What are some fantastical elements in the novel? What effect does Patchett achieve by combining realistic and fantastical elements?
2. Many novels are set in a confined space—a deserted island, an isolated retreat. Bel Canto is set in a vice president’s mansion. What do you think authors gain by setting their novels in confined spaces? What does Patchett gain?
3. What is the role of the artist in Bel Canto? What conclusions can we draw about Patchett’s attitude toward artists and their role in society?
4. Why do you think Patchett ends her novel with an epilogue, rather than a final chapter? How does the epilogue affect your reading of the novel as a whole?
5. Does the end of the novel satisfy you? Why or why not?