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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.
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
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.
Describe Watanabe and Carmen’s
relationship with language. How does language inhibit and ultimately help
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Bel Canto!