What Ruben wanted to tell them was that these things never worked out. No demands were ever met, or were ever honestly met. No one got away with the money and a handful of comrades liberated from some high-security prison. The question was only how much time it would take to wear them down, and how many people would be killed in the process.

At this point in the novel, the generals have realized that the president, their target, is not at the birthday party. They don’t have a backup plan, and they are trying to decide how to proceed. This passage from Chapter Two, in which the vice president, Ruben Iglesias, thinks about the terrorists’ unrealistic hopes, is typical of Bel Canto. From the beginning of the novel, the narrator hints that the hostage situation will not end well. Here, we are told point-blank that it is merely a question of “how many people [will] be killed.” Like audiences at an opera or a Greek tragedy, we know how the story will end even as we watch the story unfold. The characters’—and our—impulse to hope that somehow tragedy will be averted, even though they and we know it can’t be, suggests the larger human impulse to embrace life even though death is inevitable.