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Katsumi Hosokawa, the head of Japan’s largest electronics
company, is celebrating his birthday at a party thrown for him by
the government of an unnamed poor South American country, which hopes
he will open a factory in their country. The birthday party is being
held in the mansion of the vice president of the country.
Opera diva Roxanne Coss has just finished performing her
last song for the party’s entertainment when her accompanist makes
a motion to kiss her. Still enraptured with the music they’ve heard, many
in the audience imagine that they are doing the same. At that moment,
all the lights in the room go off. At first the characters are unconcerned,
assuming the darkness is simply due to a power failure. They continue
to applaud and to imagine the kiss they cannot see. Hosokawa, the
narrator tells us, has been in love with the singer’s voice for
many years, and only agreed to attend this party in his honor in
order to hear her sing in person. He has no intention of building
a factory in the country, but he couldn’t turn down the opportunity
to be close to the diva.
The narrator explains that Hosokawa first heard and fell
in love with opera on his eleventh birthday. The year was 1954,
and money was tight, so Hosokawa’s outing to the opera with his
father was especially precious. Opera might be too complicated for
children in normal circumstances, but since World War II had only
recently ended in Japan’s defeat, children were able to understand
the kind of dark stories dramatized in opera. Hosokawa was intensely
moved by the performance of Rigoletto, and his
love of opera stayed with him into adulthood. Hosokawa worked hard,
rose to prominence, married, and started a family, but it was only
when he listened to opera that he fully felt his own capacity for
love. When his eldest daughter bought him a recording of Roxanne
Coss for his birthday, he fell in love with her voice, amazed at
the simultaneous control and recklessness of her singing.
One of the men at the birthday party is Simon Thibault,
the French ambassador to this South American country. Standing in
the darkness, Thibault notices many little lights shining from beneath one
of the doors. He realizes that these are flashlights, and suddenly understands
that they are all in grave danger. He hugs his wife. Moments later,
the lights come on.
The narrator digresses to explain the preparations for
the beautiful party—the food prepared for the banquet, the arrangement
of the flowers, the creation of the place cards, the hanging of
the famous painting. A great deal of effort and money were expended by
this poor country in an attempt to woo a man who has no intention
of being wooed. The narrator explains that the country’s president,
Masuda, is absent from the party because at the last minute he decided
he could not bear to miss an important episode of his favorite soap
After the lights go on, three generals and their band
of young terrorists rush in. They are members of an organization
devoted to the overthrow of the repressive government and the liberation
of the people. The guests think of fleeing, but quickly realize
there is no escape. They all believe they will be killed by the
terrorists. The narrator tells us that in fact, the hostages will
survive and the terrorists will be killed.
In an aside, the narrator explains that Hosokawa first
met his translator, Gen Watanabe, at a business conference in Greece. Watanabe,
who can predict Hosokawa’s needs even before Hosokawa himself knows
them, has become indispensable to Hosokawa.
The generals who head the terrorist group ask for President Masuda
to come forward. When the vice president tells them he is not at
the party, one of the generals hits him in the face with the butt of
his gun. But when the vice president explains that President Masuda
stayed home to watch his soap opera, the explanation seems too absurd
to be a lie, and the vice president is not harmed further. The generals
realize they have no backup plan.
In the opening scene of the novel, the simultaneous blackout
and kiss serve as symbols of love in the face of death and connection
in the face of loss. Together they introduce a central theme of
the novel: the basic human impulse to love despite, and because
of, the knowledge of inevitable loss and death. This theme also
points to the novel’s inspirations: opera, most directly, which
features many stories about happiness ending in death, and Greek
tragedy, more indirectly, from which the tradition of opera grows.
In Greek tragedy, characters struggle to live their lives honorably
despite impending disaster.
The blackout is also something of a wink to the audience—an acknowledgment
that a story is being told. The blackout happens right after Coss’s
performance ends. When the lights go on, a new drama begins, the
drama that unfolds during the four months when the hostages are
held captive. By starting and ending her novel with the extinguishing
of lights, Patchett recalls the conventions of theater and acknowledges
the artificiality of her story.
A brief description of Bel Canto makes
the novel sound like a political thriller, but Patchett is just
as concerned with the nuances of her characters as she is with plot.
The first chapter sets up the precedent for the rest of the novel,
in which the narrator moves from character to character, delving
into the emotions and histories of each one. In Chapter One, frequent
digressions lead us away from the main action and into the histories
of several characters. From the outset, Patchett suggests that what will
matter most in this story is not the action, but the characters,
and the relationships that form between them. In Chapter One, Patchett
violates a standard thriller convention by giving away the end of
the story. The narrator explains that the hostages will live and
the terrorists will die. Toward the end of the novel, the narrator
repeatedly says that in order for the characters to believe that
their love for one another and their happiness together can last,
they have to stop thinking about the future. They must forget about
the fact that some of them are hostages and some of them are terrorists,
and forget that government troops are bound to attack the terrorists
and sever the ties they’ve formed. By telling us how the novel is
going to end, Patchett puts us in the same position as her characters.
She asks us to take pleasure in the ties the characters form, even
though we know that the novel will end in tragedy and death.
In reminding us that tragedy awaits, Patchett also follows
in the tradition of Greek tragedy, in which the chorus sees and
knows more than the other characters and often sounds a note of
caution. In this novel, the narrator takes on the role of the chorus.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Bel Canto!