-use of omniscience in space AND time
-borrowing from real-life events
Curtis Sittenfeld has pointed out that both Patchett’s classic Bel Canto, considered her breakthrough, and her newest novel Commonwealth “start with an unexpected kiss at a party”–but while in Commonwealth this kiss comes near the end of the first chapter, in Bel Canto it’s in the very first line:
When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her.
It’s as good a time as any to revisit this classic, the film adaptation of which is slated for release next year, with Julianne Moore starring as opera singer Roxane Coss (she’s only 20 years older than Roxane is in the book…).
The accompanist of Roxane Coss, “lyric soprano,” kisses her after she’s just finished singing for a private party in “the host country,” somewhere in South America. The lights go out. Everyone is gathered here for the birthday party of Mr. Hosokawa, a prominent Japanese CEO who the country’s government hopes will build a factory there, but who has in fact only come because he is an ardent fan of Roxane Coss. The country’s president was supposed to be at the party, but backed out at the last minute to watch his favorite soap opera. When the lights come back on, a group of eighteen terrorists storms the room. Since many of the party’s guests are foreigners, a language barrier presents itself that will be aided by Mr. Hosokawa’s versatile translator Gen, whom he met in Greece several years prior. The terrorists demand the president, and pistol-whip the vice president, Ruben (whose house is where the party is, and who is a common man), when he tells them the president isn’t there, which undoes all of the terrorists’ plans. Sirens approach.
The police set up outside. Some hostages sleep and everyone is eventually escorted to the bathroom the next morning. Mr. Hosokawa feels guilty, since he was the reason for the party and thus the reason everyone’s there. Joachim Messner knocks on the door–their mediator from the Red Cross. Gen translates for him; he wants them to let the women go in exchange for provisions. Ruben’s governess, Esmerelda, sews up Ruben’s cut face after Messner tries and fails, then leaves. There is a selfish old priest and a compassionate young priest present. Messner returns and the generals say they will give up the women and the workers and separate them from the men; Mr. Hosokawa helps with Roxane’s increasingly ill accompanist. The young priest, Father Arguedas, opts to stay after they try to send him away. Then the women and others exit the house.
Roxane Coss is pulled from the line of exiting women, which almost causes a moment of insurrection. The accompanist, who left with the ill, returns for Roxane and insists on staying. Father Arguedas gives him last rites. Roxane has been irritated with the accompanist because he confessed his love to her on the plane ride over and has been relentless about it ever since. She looks in his pockets, figuring out he’s diabetic and out of insulin right before he dies. The generals debate shooting the corpse so it will look like they killed him, which Roxane vehemently opposes, so they don’t. The hostages admire the accompanist’s love for Roxane. Messner and a helper pick up the body and drop off sandwiches. Gen offers Roxane Mr. Hosokawa’s condolences, and she goes over to him and they talk (while Gen translates) about how he thinks this is his fault; she says it isn’t. The men are interrogated to see who’s important enough to keep. Provisions are sent for, and the more important and less important men are separated.
After a week, things get more lax, and people do things as they need to. They figure out how young the terrorists actually are (many are teenagers) and the terrorists find out all the different places people are from. There’s conversation about a possible overthrow, but the language barrier between everyone makes it even more unlikely. The terrorists explore the house, and the Frenchman Simon Thibault causes an uproar among them when he turns on the television, which none of them has seen before (imitating Roxane, Cesar sings to his reflection in it before Simon turns it on). Two of the soldiers turn out to be girls, Beatriz and Carmen, the one who’s most attached to Roxane. Oscar Mendoza and Ruben (who’s given Roxane his wife’s clothes) talk about telling Roxane they love her. Roxane says she needs to start singing soon and Gen looks for someone who can play the piano and finally finds Tetsuya Kato, who came with him and Mr. Hosokowa, though neither had any idea he could play. All 58 people there come to hear him when he starts to play, beautifully.
Gen is kept busy translating for everyone, and translates for Kato and Roxane. Messner comes in to talk to the generals; the only requests they honor are Roxane’s, and so now she also asks for stuff for other people. Her request this time is music from her manager; Father Arguedas gets wind of this conversation, says he can get the music, and gets permission to call his friend Manuel for it (and also gets Roxane to say a few words on the line). Simon sneaks a call to his wife but only gets the answering machine. Gen wants to talk to Carmen but struggles to speak when he’s not translating for others; fortunately Messner wants to talk to her to make sure she’s okay, so Gen gets to. When Messner comes back at a time he’s not supposed to with the box of music, General Alfredo tries to turn him away in a show of authority, but Roxane starts to sing and then says she’ll never sing again there if she doesn’t get the music right then, and Alfredo goes to Benjamin, who caves. Roxane looks through the music and Kato plays some. Carmen goes to look at Gen sleeping while she’s keeping watch, and wakes him up and asks him to teach her to read in Spanish.
The box arriving is the pivotal point of everyone’s captivity, terrorist and hostage alike–Roxane’s singing makes each of their situations more bearable. Now Roxane Coss is in charge and the day is divided according to her singing routine. This is the happiest time in Mr. Hosokowa’s life. Gen gives Beatriz his watch so she can know when to watch the Maria soap opera. The Russian Victor Fyodorov tells Gen (who’s watching for Carmen) that he’d like to speak to Roxane Coss. They’re now past the second week, and, through the increasingly unprepared food sent to the house, Ruben recognizes the world outside getting bored with their situation. Gen manages to convince General Benjamin to have some of the soldiers help them cook so they can use the knives. Gen confirms he will teach Carmen Spanish.
Father Arguedas starts saying Mass, which even the non-religious enjoy thanks to Roxane Coss’s singing. The rains end as the seasons change. Carmen suggests to Gen that Roxane is in love with Mr. Hosokowa. Gen is in love with Carmen, whom he’s been teaching in secret at night, and they finally kiss in the bathroom while Victor Fyodorov is pestering Gen to come help him talk to Roxane. Fyodorov tells her a long story about how his appreciation for art originated with a book of paintings his grandmother showed him, and claims this makes him qualified to love her; Gen is embarrassed to translate these feelings of love that he’s never expressed himself. Fyodorov says he does not expect Roxane to return his love and that she doesn’t have to do anything. Roxane tells Gen it’s better if someone loves you for who you are instead of what you can do. Cesar the boy soldier gets hard listening to Roxane sing in the mornings, not for her, but for the music.
Mr. Hosokowa sometimes plays chess with General Benjamin. Messner comes in during a game after Ishmael gets permission to play the winner (he’s only learned how to play by watching) and exchanges the usual list of demands; the terrorists’ are getting more extreme in response to their having gotten nothing so far. When Roxane asks Messner how long he thinks they’ll be there, he says a long time. Roxane asks Gen to have Carmen bring Mr. Hosokowa to her room in the night. Ruben gives Benjamin some old antibiotics for his eye infected from shingles. Father Arguedas hears confessions from Oscar Mendoza and Beatriz. Gen works out a plan with Carmen, then tells Mr. Hosokowa Roxane wants him to come to her in the night. That night when they go, they wake up Beatriz asleep on watch, but Carmen convinces her not to tell. Carmen then takes Gen outside and they make love in the grass (later Gen will wish he’d used the opportunity to escape with her).
When Roxane Coss doesn’t come down the next morning to sing, Cesar sings instead, impressively imitating her. Roxane comes down and interrupts him, and, thinking she’s angry, he flees to a tree. Carmen tries and fails to convince him to come down, and when Roxane wants to go outside to try, Benjamin decides to let everyone go outside for the first time since they’ve been in captivity. Roxane tells Cesar she’ll give him singing lessons. Some of the Germans run for exercise, and Ruben starts pulling weeds in the overgrown garden; he promises Ishmael he can come live with him when the ordeal is over.
Thanks to Carmen, Mr. Hosokowa becomes good at sneaking up to Roxane’s room. Lovemaking regularly disrupts Gen’s and Carmen’s Spanish lessons. They go outside frequently now, enjoy soccer games, exercise, and gardening. Everyone’s happier except Messner, who looks noticeably worse when he comes. He tries to tell Gen they need to convince the generals to surrender, but Gen doesn’t pick up on his urgency. They hear Cesar singing in his lessons with Roxane. Messner tells the generals that the government is going to stop letting him come soon, but they still refuse to give in. The hostages live now as if they have forgotten their lives from before, and can’t think about the future. Gen manages to forget Messner’s warning; he suggests trying to escape to Carmen but they quickly get distracted. Roxane Coss has fallen in love with Cesar’s singing on the heels of falling in love with Mr. Hosokowa. Cesar sings for his lesson in the mornings and then they all go outside. One morning Roxane screams when she sees a man she doesn’t recognize heading towards them. He shoots Cesar, and she covers his dying body with hers. Then there are many men who spread out and methodically shoot all the terrorists, clearly knowing who the hostages are. Gen looks for Carmen, but she’s already dead, having been shot right after Cesar was, with Roxane witnessing it. Mr. Hosokowa, throwing himself in front of Carmen, was killed by the same bullet.
Gen and Roxane have just gotten married in Lucca, with Simon and his wife as witnesses. Simon and Gen go to look for an open bar and discuss how Gen, who translates books now, will live in Milan with Roxane. Gen brings up that the news he’s seen about what happened to them never mentioned Beatriz or Carmen, but said there were fifty-nine men and one woman. Simon says the coverage in France was the same, but realizes that Gen and Carmen were together. Gen says Roxane’s singing is the only thing that reminds him there’s good in the world. They return to the open arms of their waiting wives. The End.
One of the most prominent features of this novel, far and away Patchett’s most popular, is her use of omniscience. She establishes in the novel’s second sentence that this omniscience has limits, seeming to acknowledge that there are some things that simply cannot be known for certain:
When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her. Maybe he had been turning towards her just before it was completely dark, maybe he was lifting his hands.
Patchett uses this omniscience to manage a large cast, giving herself the freedom to tell the reader about the general state of things as well as dive directly into any character’s head, offering what the critic James Wood in his treatise How Fiction Works has labeled “free indirect style,” where there is no mediation between the reader and the character’s thoughts. One can get an idea of how Patchett transitions from external observations to character’s thoughts (in which pronouns are altogether dispensed with) in passages like:
“This is certainly fine for me,” Roxane said. She sipped her glass of water. The sight of it made Fyodorov tremble, the water, her lips. He had to look away. What was it he wanted to say? He could write a letter instead, wouldn’t that be proper? The translator could translate. A word was a word if you spoke it or wrote it down.
The way she seamlessly roves among the thoughts of the characters seems inspired by Tolstoy, but Patchett reveals it’s not as seamless as it seems:
“The biggest achievement of this book for me, the thing that I am most proud of, is the narrative structure — that kind of third person narrative that I think of as Russian, wherein the point of view just seamlessly moves among the characters. That was the hardest part of writing the book. It was what took me so long. It’s the thing I’ve wanted to do since I started writing fiction.”
Patchett also uses omniscience in time, telling us about things that will happen in the future. Before the terrorists storm the party, we’re told:
It had been a beautiful party, though no one would remember that.
This builds tension, letting us know something significant is about to happen. In the first chapter we’re also told that:
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.
This is a classic example of giving away the ending increasing tension rather than mitigating it. If we know the terrorists are going to die, what’s the point of reading any further? To witness the meaningful relationships they form with their hostages and vice versa. When one reads this line initially, one assumes that the hostages would be relieved and/or happy from this prospect, but the surprise of the narrative is that by the time the deaths actually happen, it will be a tragedy, a sad (indeed horrible) ending, far from a happy one. The tension of the narrative resides in finding out how terrorists dying took on the opposite emotional import than we’d expect.
The novel was published in May of 2001; Patchett was not rendering sympathetic terrorists as a conscious response to Sept. 11, but it almost seems prescient, since one might argue that it was an American lack of understanding of Islamic extremism as a product of American hypocrisy and misdeeds that made our response to that event so inept, a cause of, rather than an impediment to, further damage. In Bel Canto, the terrorists get nearly the same amount of development as the hostages; their humanity is on full display. She makes the Generals Alfredo and Benjamin sympathetic through their injuries–missing fingers and an ongoing raging case of shingles. It’s also apparent that their motives are ultimately not to do harm but good, such as releasing the wrongfully imprisoned. It’s disappointing that the book’s success doesn’t seem to have much impacted the national consciousness at the time.
Though it was not 9/11, Patchett was inspired by a real-life terrorist incident, the Japanese embassy hostage crisis in Peru in 1996. It’s narratively useful to see what she took from reality and what she adjusted. The fundamentals of the real-life event we can get from the Wikipedia article about it:
The Japanese embassy hostage crisis began on 17 December 1996 in Lima, Peru, when 14 members of the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) took hostage hundreds of high-level diplomats, government and military officials and business executives who were attending a party at the official residence of the Japanese ambassador to Peru, Morihisa Aoki, in celebration of Emperor Akihito’s 63rd birthday.
Notably, the detailed article mentions nothing about the relationship between the terrorists and the hostages.
We can see that Patchett took a lot of the basics–roughly the same number of terrorists, likely the same country, though she leaves it unnamed, and the originating event being a birthday party for a Japanese man. She also seems to have kept the release of the women after the first night, the four-month time frame that the standoff lasted, and the way it ended in a military raid with all the terrorists being killed while only one hostage was. (Interestingly, the president of Peru at the time, Alberto Fujimori, who oversaw the perceived-as-successful military operation freeing the hostages, was a Peruvian of Japanese ancestry who eventually fled to Japan; he also apparently had such a penchant for soap operas that meetings were not allowed to be scheduled during them.) The military raid was achieved in the book and in real life by digging a tunnel, but in real life the insurgents heard noises that made them suspect the tunnel was being dug, while in the book they seem to be taken completely by surprise. The raid took place during a game of soccer in both, though in real life this happened because the military had been spying and knew this was the optimal time the terrorists let their guard down (it was also an indoor game, not outdoor as in Patchett). In the real Peruvian crisis, women were known to be among the militants in the terrorist group, as opposed to Patchett’s account, where there were females but nobody outside the house knew about them. Patchett’s also changed who the house belongs to from a non-native (the Japanese ambassador) of the host country to one of its highest ranking politicians (the vice-president). Perhaps most prominently, she’s added a famous opera singer.
Probably on first read a lot of people forget that early line warning that the terrorists will not survive, but Patchett does occasionally remind us that there will be some survivors:
Years later when this period of internment was remembered by the people who were actually there, they saw it in two distinct periods: before the box and after the box.
The box contains the music that Roxane Coss will use to sing. Part of her inclusion in this narrative seems to emphasize that art can make any circumstances bearable–even enjoyable. It was also the basis for the structure, as Patchett revealed in an interview shortly before the book was published:
“I wanted somehow to get all of those elements that I love about opera into a novel. I wanted to write a book that would be like an opera in its structure, its grandeur, its musicality, its melodrama.”
As the Guardian’s review of the novel points out, the book pulls off a unique coup:
The trick is ingenious: a hijack in which the captors have nowhere to go and the hostages have no desire for release.
After the box of music, the captives start to be happier as hostages than they were in their former lives–with the possible exception of Simon, who desperately misses his wife. This exception emphasizes the other aspect that the novel dramatizes as making life bearable–love.
The two primary love stories in the narrative arise against all odds, and could only have ever happened due to the particular circumstances of the hostage situation: Mr. Hosokowa and Roxane getting together despite a language barrier, and Gen and Carmen getting together despite his being a hostage from Japan and her a terrorist from the mountains of South America. According to Wikipedia, these relationships are the “backdrop” for the rest of the story.
As Patchett’s use of omniscience-in-time indicates, time works in something of a nontraditional way in this narrative; many parts of the novel are describing periods of time rather than a specific moment in time. Thus, some of the scenes we do get, such as Father Arguedas hearing Beatriz’s confession, are not furthering a linear plot–though some scenes, such as Father Arguedas talking on the phone to his friend Manuel about the music to be sent, are furthering something more akin to a linear plot–but rather showing how the terrorists and hostages have become interchangeable, have all become people. But we do see chains of events unfolding here that primarily center on establishing objects of love, so that in the climax we feel a significant impact of loss. With Carmen’s help, Gen facilitates Mr. Hosokowa’s rendezvous with Roxane. The first night this happens, Roxane doesn’t come down to sing the next morning, prompting Cesar to sing instead; without her having met up with her lover, she might never have discovered Cesar’s singing, her second great love. That Cesar has a prodigal operatic voice might seem convenient (and some critics have remarked as much), might seem to be stretching reality, but the conception of the novel as an operatic melodrama makes this appropriate.
The fact that Mr. Hosokowa is the only hostage who dies is narratively appropriate, since he, as was emphasized by his guilt in the early chapters, is the reason everyone was there to be taken hostage. With the reason for them being there removed, the hostages are narratively free to go. The epilogue, with Gen and Roxane marrying, is also narratively fitting, in that the two people who have both had their loves taken away from them take solace in each other. Of course, there’s also been the emphasis on how Gen is a kind of extension of Mr. Hosokowa, and Mr. Hosokowa’s own considerations of what would change if they ever got their old lives back, which is actually impossible:
He tried not to give himself over to fantasies: he would get a divorce; he would follow her from city to city, sitting in the front row of every opera house in the world. Happily, he would have done this, given up everything for her. But he understood that these were extraordinary times, and if their old life was ever restored to them, nothing would be the same.
It’s also fitting that Simon and his wife would be the wedding witnesses, as Simon’s love for his wife made him the only one who seemed to not completely enjoy their captive circumstances by the end. One suspects that even if Mr. Hosokowa knew he would ultimately die, he would have considered his period in captivity, and the intimacy with the beloved opera singer it enabled him, worth it, that he still would have gone to the party even if he knew how it would end.
The omniscience-in-time is also used for a particularly emotional effect when Gen and Carmen first sleep together, when we’re told about how Gen will remember this moment later:
First, he will imagine what he did not do:
In this version, he takes Carmen’s hand and leads her out the gate at the end of the front walkway. There are military guards on the other side of the wall but they, too, are young and asleep, and together they pass them and simply walk out into the capital city of the host country. Nobody knows to stop them. They are not famous and nobody cares. They go to an airport and find a flight back to Japan and they live there, together, happily and forever.
Gen’s tragedy is re-emphasized right before the military storm the house at the end, when Messner tries to communicate that things have gotten urgent:
“It is a standoff,” Gen said. “Maybe a permanent one. If they keep us here forever, we’ll manage.”
“Are you insane?” Messner said. “You were the brightest one here once, and now you’re as crazy as the rest of them.”
This very much echoes a conversation that Gen had with Carmen earlier:
“What do you mean, this is where we live now?”
Carmen sighed. “You know I can’t say. But ask yourself, would it be so awful if we all stayed here in this beautiful house?” This room was a third of the size of the china closet. Her knees touched his legs. If he took even a half step back he would be on the commode. She wished she could take his hand. Why would he want to leave her, leave this place?
“This has to end sooner or later,” he said. “These sorts of things never just go on indefinitely, somebody stops them.”
So the ending was foretold in the beginning (and foreshadowed at several points along the way), and we have a character–not just the omniscient narrator–who has more insight into this ending than the rest of the characters: the intermediary, Messner. In chapter 8, as Messner is starting to show his exhaustion, we get his internal thoughts:
More than any other negotiation Messner had ever been involved with, he found that he didn’t really care who won this one. But that wasn’t it exactly, because the governments always won. It was that he wouldn’t mind seeing these people get away, the whole lot of them. He wished they could use the tunnel the military was digging, wished they could crawl back into the air vents and down into that tunnel and go back into whatever leafy quarters they came from (emphasis added).
Here, we’ve inadvertently been told more specifically how the terrorists are all going to die in the end: the military will infiltrate the house through a tunnel that they’ve ostensibly been digging for months. The careful reader would connect this to a seemingly passing reference that we got in chapter 7:
While General Benjamin continued to cut out every mention of their circumstances from the newspaper, they had caught a snippet of talk on the television that a tunnel was being dug, that the police were planning on digging their way up into the house, and so the crisis would end much the way it had started, with strangers crashing into the room and redirecting the course of their lives, but no one believed this.
There’s a lot of foreboding surrounding Messner’s final extended appearance:
“It is not my intention to put my soldiers down in those caves. I would sooner see them dead and buried.”
You might see them dead, Messner thought, but you won’t have the chance to see them buried.
One might actually expect Messner to have a bit more of an internal debate about whether he should tell the group what’s going to happen, but if he had, then it might give away the ending too much. Patchett also addresses this pretty directly when she has him think:
Members of the Red Cross brought food and medicine, sometimes they would ferry papers for arbitration, but they were not moles. They did not spy. Joachim Messner would have no more told the terrorists what the military had planned than he would tell the military what was happening on the other side of the wall.
By incorporating references to the future, Patchett almost counterintuitively emphasizes the present. She’s telling us the things the characters cannot know at the time. It seems to be the characters’ lack of knowledge about their fate, and their consideration of the possibility of their imminent deaths, that allows for a heightened appreciation of the present moment. The extremity of these circumstances allows Patchett to wax more poetic than she might otherwise be able to get away with (it seems to also contribute to the mood of operatic melodrama). She is certainly a master of simile and metaphor, and so I will leave you with a mere few gems from a jewelry emporium:
He was the first to understand. He felt like he had been startled from a deep sleep, drunk from liquor and pork and Dvořák.
By now the bodyguards napped inside limousines like great, overfed dogs.
The house seemed to rise up like a boat caught inside the wide arm of a wave and flip onto its side.
They were considerably less likely to be accused of doing something they did not do. They were like small dogs trying to avoid a fight, their necks and bellies turned willfully towards sharp teeth, take me.
There were a series of loud clicks and then an artificial blue-white light spilled through the living-room window like cold milk and made everyone squint.
The Slavic language was pear brandy on his tongue.
To tell something to Carmen was to have it sewn forever into the silky folds of her brain.
He could see right inside her mouth, a damp, pink cave.