Bel Canto By Ann Patchett
There are some novels that I have sold for several years and been told are terrific, but I have just neglected to read them for no particular reason. Bel Canto is one of those. I finally read it over a couple of beautiful Georgian Bay days this summer and loved it. This novel was published in 2001 - written and published before the terrorism of 9/11. Ann Patchett sets her novel in an unnamed South American country - a country where a group of terrorists storm a party, expecting to be able to kidnap the president of their country and hold him as ransom for their demands.
The party is being held in honor of the birthday of a Japanese industrialist and the most famous opera singer of the day is there to sing for him. Unfortunately for all of those concerned, the President is not at the party - he is at home watching the soap opera.
The women are released, except for the opera singer, to make the size of the crowd of hostages more manageable, but there is no one among these hostages valuable enough to be ransomed by the terrorists.
A long siege begins.
The question is posed at the beginning about choice and consequence; choices made that put you in or out of a “situation,” being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We have all had occasions in life to think about this - fate or free will.
In this year, the fifth anniversary of the destruction of the Twin Towers, I also thought about those who died, and whose lives were directly affected by the terrorism of 9/11 - and all of the rest of us whose world has been forever changed. The characters in this novel certainly thought about what their lives would have been like if they had not been at this particular party.
The siege goes on for several weeks, during which time the terrorists discover that there is no sense in killing the hostages if they have any hope of having their demands met. Their demand is to have their compatriots released from prison.
The government of the country has no incentive to meet these demands and a stalemate ensues.
Their world, that of the terrorists and the hostages, becomes a very isolated world lived only within the walls of the Vice-Presidential palace.
Food and necessities are delivered and communication between the negotiators is exchanged, but the outside world, the world of the families, is silent and unknown.
Stockholm Syndrome comes into play when a captive cannot escape and is isolated and threatened with death, but is shown token acts of kindness by the captor.
It typically takes about three or four days for the psychological shift to take hold.
A strategy of trying to keep your captor happy in order to stay alive becomes an obsessive identification with the likes and dislikes of the captor.
The term originated with a hostage-taking in the summer of 1973, when four hostages were taken in an incident at a bank in Stockholm, Sweden. At the end of their captivity, only six days later, they actively resisted rescue.
They refused to testify against their captors, and according to some reports one of the hostages eventually became engaged to one of her jailed captors.
In this novel this happens with some of the key characters.
The suspense builds for the reader as time passes and nothing seems to be happening to resolve this long-standing situation.
Are these people going to live together forever?
It almost seems so. I am not going to reveal the end. The novel was a pleasure to read, thought provoking and depicted what seems an innocent world from today’s perspective.