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       Bel Canto, p.14

           Ann Patchett

  “Perhaps the Vice President plays,” Mr. Hosokawa suggested. “He has a fine piano.”

  Gen went off to find the Vice President, who was asleep in a chair, his good cheek pressed to his shoulder, his bad cheek turned up, red and blue and still full of Esmeralda’s stitches. The skin was growing up around them. They needed to come out. “Sir?” Gen whispered.

  “Hmm?” Ruben said, his eyes closed.

  “Do you play the piano?”


  “The one in the living room. Do you know how to play it, sir?”

  “They brought it in for the party,” Ruben said, trying not to let himself wake up completely. He had been dreaming of Esmeralda standing over the sink, peeling a potato. “There was one that was here before but they took it away because it wasn’t good enough. It was good, of course, my daughter takes lessons on it, just not good enough for them,” he said, his voice full of sleep. “That piano isn’t mine. Neither piano is mine, really.”

  “But do you know how to play it?”

  “The piano?” Ruben finally looked at him and then straightened up his neck.


  “No,” he said, and smiled. “Isn’t that a shame?”

  Gen agreed that it was. “You should take those stitches out, I think.”

  Ruben touched his face. “Do you think they’re ready?”

  “I’d say so.”

  Ruben smiled as if he had accomplished something by growing his skin back together again. He went off to find Ishmael to ask him to bring the manicure kit from the bathroom upstairs. Hopefully, the cuticle scissors had not been confiscated as a weapon.

  Gen went off on his own to try and find a new accompanist. It wasn’t a matter of much linguistic finesse, as piano was more or less piano in many languages. Surely Roxane Coss could have gotten the point across herself with a small amount of gesturing, but she stayed with Mr. Hosokawa and together they stared at the nothingness the window offered up to them.

  “Do you play?” Gen asked, beginning with the Russians, who were smoking in the dining room. They squinted at him through the blue haze and then shook their heads. “My God,” said Victor Fyodorov, covering his heart with his hands. “What I would not give to know! Tell the Red Cross to send in a teacher and I will learn for her.” The other two Russians laughed and threw down their cards. “Piano?” Gen asked the next group. He made his way through the house asking all of the guests, skipping over their captors on the assumption that piano lessons were an impossibility in the jungle. Gen imagined lizards on the foot pedals, humidity warping the keyboard, persistent vines winding their way up the heavy wooden legs. One Spaniard, Manuel Flores; one Frenchman, Étienne Boyer; and one Argentinian, Alejandro Rivas, said they could play a little but didn’t read music. Andreas Epictetus said he had played quite well in his youth but hadn’t touched a piano in years. “Every day my mother made me practice,” he said. “The day I moved away from home I piled up all the music in the back of the house and I lit it, right there with her watching. I haven’t laid a finger to a piano since.” The rest of them said no, they didn’t play. People began recounting stories of a couple of lessons or the lessons of their children. Their voices fell over one another and from every corner of the room there came the word, piano, piano, piano. It seemed to Gen (and he included himself in this assessment) that never had a more uncultured group of men been taken hostage. What had they been doing all these years that no one had bothered with such an important instrument? They all wished they could play, if not before then, certainly now. To be able to play for Roxane Coss.

  Then Tetsuya Kato, a vice president at Nansei whom Gen had known for years, smiled and walked to the Steinway without a word. He was a slightly built man in his early fifties with graying hair who, in Gen’s memory, rarely spoke. He had a reputation for being very good with numbers. The sleeves to his tuxedo shirt were rolled up above his elbows and his jacket was long gone but he sat down on the bench with great formality. The ones in the living room watched him as he lifted the cover of the keyboard and ran his hands once lightly over the keys, soothing them. Some of the others were still talking about the piano, you could hear the Russians’ voices coming from the dining room. Then, without making a request for anyone’s attention, Tetsuya Kato began to play. He started with Chopin’s Nocturne opus 9 in E Flat major no 2. It was the piece he had most often heard in his head since coming to this country, the one he played silently against the edge of the dining-room table when no one was watching. At home he looked at his sheet music and turned the pages. Now he was certain he had known the music all along. He could see the notes in front of him and he followed them with unerring fidelity. In his heart he had never felt closer to Chopin, whom he loved like a father. How strange his fingers felt after two weeks of not playing, as if the skin he wore now was entirely new. He could hear the softest click of his fingernails, two weeks too long, as he touched the keys. The felt-covered hammers tapped the strings gently at first, and the music, even for those who had never heard the piece before, was like a memory. From all over the house, terrorist and hostage alike turned and listened and felt a great easing in their chests. There was a delicacy about Tetsuya Kato’s hands, as if they were simply resting in one place on the keyboard and then in another. Then suddenly his right hand spun out notes like water, a sound so light and high that there was a temptation to look beneath the lid for bells. Kato closed his eyes so that he could imagine he was home, playing his own piano. His wife was asleep. His children, two unmarried sons still living with them, were asleep. For them the notes of Kato’s playing had become like air, what they depended on and had long since stopped noticing. Playing on this grand piano now Kato could imagine them sleeping and he put that into the nocturne, his sons’ steady breathing, his wife clutching her pillow with one hand. All of the tenderness he felt for them went into the keys. He touched them as if he meant not to wake them. It was the love and loneliness that each of them felt, that no one had brought himself to speak of. Had the accompanist played so well? It would have been impossible to remember, his talent was to be invisible, to lift the soprano up, but now the people in the living room of the vice-presidential mansion listened to Kato with hunger and nothing in their lives had ever fed them so well.

  Most of the men there did not know him. Most of them had no distinct memory of having noticed him up to this point, so that in a way it felt that he had come in from the outside world to play for them. None of the men who did know him knew that he played, that he continued his lessons and practiced for an hour every morning before boarding the train for work. It had been important to Kato to have another life, a secret life. Now the secrecy of it did not strike him as important at all.

  They were all at the piano, Roxane Coss and Mr. Hosokawa and Gen and Simon Thibault and the priest and the Vice President and Oscar Mendoza and little Ishmael and Beatriz and Carmen, who left her gun in the kitchen and came and stood with the rest. All of the Russians were there, and the Germans who had spoken of a revolt, and the Italians, who were weeping, and the two Greeks who were older than the rest of them. The boys were there, Paco and Ranato and Humberto and Bernardo and all the rest, the great and menacing hulk of boy flesh that seemed to soften with every note. Even the Generals came. Every last one of them came, until there were fifty-eight people in the room, and when he finished Tetsuya Kato bowed his head while they applauded. Had there not been a need for a pianist there was little chance that Kato would have sat down that afternoon to play, though he had watched the piano the way the other men watched the door. He would not have chosen to draw attention to himself, and without his playing the story might have missed him altogether. But there was a need, a specific request, and so he stepped forward.

  “Fine, fine,” General Benjamin said, feeling good to think the accompanist that had been lost was now replaced.

  “Very well done,” Mr. Hosokawa said, so proud that it was a Nansei man stepping up for the job. Twenty years he ha
d known Kato. He knew his wife and the names of his children. How was it possible he did not know about the piano?

  For a moment the room was very quiet and then Carmen, who had so recently become a girl to them, said something in a language that not even Gen was sure of.

  “Encore,” the priest said to her.

  “Encore,” Carmen said.

  Kato bowed his head to Carmen, who smiled. Who could have ever mistaken her for one of those boys? Even beneath her cap she was wholly lovely. She knew that people were looking at her and she closed her eyes, unable to go back to the kitchen the way she wanted to, unable to leave the nesting curve of the piano’s side. When he played she could feel the vibrations of the strings as she leaned one hip against the wood. No one had ever bowed his head to her before. No one had listened to her request. Certainly, no one had ever played a piece of music for her before.

  Kato played another and then another until everyone in the room forgot that they badly wanted to be someplace else. When he was finally finished and could not meet the request of another encore because his hands were trembling with exhaustion, Roxane Coss shook his hand and bowed her head, which established a pact that in the future she would sing and he would play.


  gen was a busy man. He was needed by Mr. Hosokawa, who wanted another ten words and their pronunciations to add to his book. He was needed by the other hostages, who wanted to know how to say, “Are you finished with that newspaper?” in Greek or German or French, then he was needed to read the newspaper to them if they did not read in Spanish. He was needed by Messner every day to translate the negotiations. Mostly, he was needed by the Generals, who had conveniently mistaken him as Mr. Hosokawa’s secretary instead of his translator. They appropriated his services. They liked the idea of having a secretary, and soon they were waking Gen up in the middle of the night, telling him to sit with a pencil and pad while they dictated their latest list of demands for the government. What they wanted seemed to Gen to be unformed. If their plan had been to kidnap the President in order to overthrow the government, they hadn’t bothered to think any further than that. Now they talked in generalities about money for the poor. They dredged up the names of every person they had ever known who was in jail, which seemed to Gen to be an inexhaustible list. Late at night, in deliriums of power and generosity, they demanded that everyone be set free. They moved beyond the political prisoners. They remembered the car thieves they had known from boyhood, the petty robbers, men who stole chickens, a handful of drug traffickers who were not entirely bad sorts once you knew them. “Don’t forget him,” Alfredo said, and gave Gen an irritating poke on the shoulder. “You have no idea how that man has suffered.” They admired Gen’s neat penmanship, and when they found a typewriter in the bedroom of the Vice President’s older daughter, they were impressed with Gen’s ability to type. Sometimes, in the middle of transcription, Hector would say, “In English!” and then Alfredo, “In Portuguese!” How amazing it was to watch over his shoulder while he typed on in different languages! It was like having an incredibly fascinating toy. Sometimes, when it was very late, Gen would type up everything in Swedish without benefit of umlauts in an attempt to amuse himself, but he did not feel amused anymore. As far as Gen could tell, there were only two hostages who were not fabulously wealthy and powerful: himself and the priest, and they were the only two who were made to work. Of course, the Vice President worked, but not because anyone had asked him to. He seemed to think that the comfort of his guests was still his responsibility. He was always serving sandwiches and picking up cups. He washed the dishes and swept and twice a day he mopped up the floors in the lavatories. With a dishtowel knotted around his waist, he took on the qualities of a charming hotel concierge. He would ask, would you like some tea? He would ask, would it be too much of an imposition to vacuum beneath the chair in which you were sitting? Everyone was very fond of Ruben. Everyone had completely forgotten that he was the Vice President of the country.

  Ruben Iglesias delivered a message to Gen while he waited for the Generals to make up their minds as to what they wanted to say next: he was needed at the piano. Roxane Coss and Kato had a great deal to discuss. Could they spare Gen at this particular moment? They were all in favor of keeping the soprano happy and possibly hearing her sing again, and so they consented to let Gen go. Gen felt like he was a schoolboy called out of class. He remembered his neat box of pencils, the clean pad of paper, the luck of having a desk next to the window simply because of where his name fell in the alphabet. He was a good student, and yet he remembered at every moment how desperately he wished to leave the room. Ruben Iglesias took his arm. “I suppose the problems of the world will have to wait,” he whispered, and then he laughed in a way that no one could hear him at all.

  Mr. Hosokawa stayed at the piano with Kato and Roxane. It was a pleasure to hear so much talk of opera translated into Japanese, to hear Roxane Coss’s conversation in Japanese. It was different to listen to what she said to him and what she said when she was speaking to someone else, speaking to someone about music. There was a regular education to be had from eavesdropping. So much of what was learned was accidentally overheard, just half a sentence caught when walking through the door. Since they had been taken hostage, Mr. Hosokawa had felt the frustration of the deaf. Even as he diligently studied his Spanish, it was only occasionally that he heard a word he recognized. All his life he had wanted more time to listen, and when finally there was time there was nothing to listen to, only the patter of voices he could not understand, the occasional screeching of the police beyond the wall. The Vice President had a stereo system but he seemed only to have a taste for local music. All of his CDs were of bands playing high-pitched pipes and crude drums. The music gave Mr. Hosokawa a headache. The Generals, however, found it inspiring and would not grant requests for new CDs.

  But now Mr. Hosokawa pulled his chair up to the piano and listened. Everyone stayed in the living room, hostages and terrorists alike, in hopes that Kato might be persuaded to play again or, better still, that Roxane Coss might sing. Carmen seemed especially intent on watching Roxane. She considered herself to be Roxane’s bodyguard, her personal responsibility. She stood in the corner and stared at their party with unwavering concentration. Beatriz chewed on the end of her braid for a while, making talk with the boys her own age. When no music seemed to be immediately forthcoming, she and a few of her cohorts snuck off to watch television.

  Only Mr. Hosokawa and Gen were invited to sit with the two principal players. “I like to sing scales first thing in the morning,” Roxane said. “After breakfast. I’ll work on some songs, Bellini, Tosti, Schubert. If you can play the Chopin, you can play those.” Roxane ran her fingers over the keys, placing her hands for the opening of Schubert’s “Die Forelle.”

  “If we can get the music,” Kato said.

  “If we can get dinner brought in we can get sheet music. I’ll have my manager put a box together and send it down. Someone can fly it down. Tell me what you want.” Roxane looked around for a piece of paper and Mr. Hosokawa was able to produce his notebook and pen from the inside pocket of his jacket. He opened it to a blank page towards the back and handed it to her.

  “Ah, Mr. Hosokawa,” Roxane said. “Imprisonment would be something else altogether without you.”

  “Surely you’ve been given nicer gifts than a pad of paper and a pen,” Mr. Hosokawa said.

  “The quality of the gift depends on the sincerity of the giver. It also helps if the gift is something the receiver actually wants. So far you’ve given me your handkerchief, your notebook, and your pen. All three things I wanted.”

  “The little I have here is yours,” he said with a sincerity that didn’t match her lightness. “You could have my shoes. My watch.”

  “You have to save something for the future so you can surprise me.” Roxane tore off a sheet of paper and handed the notebook back. “Keep up with your studies. If we stay here long enough we’ll be able to cut Ge
n out of the loop.”

  Gen translated and then added, “I’ll put myself out of business.”

  “You can always go back to the jungle with them,” Roxane said, looking over her shoulder at the Generals, who spent their free time watching her. “They seem to want to give you a job.”

  “I would never give him up,” Mr. Hosokawa said.

  “Sometimes,” Roxane said, touching Mr. Hosokawa’s wrist for just a second, “these matters are out of our control.”

  Mr. Hosokawa smiled at her. He was reeling with the naturalness of their discourse, the sudden ease with which they passed the time. Imagine if it hadn’t been Kato who played the piano! It could have been one of the Greeks or a Russian. Then he would have been locked out again, listening to English translated to Greek and Greek into English, knowing that Gen, his translator, would not have the time to then repeat every sentence in Japanese. Kato said he would like some Fauré if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, and Roxane laughed and said that nothing could be trouble at this point. Wonderful Kato! He scarcely seemed to notice her. It was the piano he couldn’t take his eyes off. He had always been a tireless worker and now he was the hero of the day. There would be a healthy raise when all of this was over.

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