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       Bel Canto, p.2

           Ann Patchett

  * * *

  Two hours before the beginning of Mr. Hosokawa’s birthday party, President Masuda, a native of this country born of Japanese parents, had sent a note of regret saying that important matters beyond his control would prevent him from attending the evening’s event.

  There was great speculation about this decision after the evening turned bad. Was it the President’s good luck? God’s divine will? A tip-off, conspiracy, plot? Sadly, it was nothing so random. The party was scheduled to begin at eight o’clock and should have lasted past midnight. The President’s soap opera began at nine. Among the President’s cabinet members and advisers it was an open secret that matters of state could not be held Monday through Friday for one hour beginning at two in the afternoon or Tuesday evening for one hour beginning at nine. Mr. Hosokawa’s birthday fell on a Tuesday this year. There was nothing that could be done about that. Nor could anyone conceive how to have a party that commenced at ten o’clock at night or had concluded by eight-thirty and which allowed time for the President to return home. It was suggested that the program could be taped, but the President abhorred taping. There was enough taping to endure when he was out of the country. All he asked of anyone was that certain hours of his week remain unquestionably open. The discussion of the problem of Mr. Hosokawa’s ill-timed birthday party lasted for days. After a great deal of negotiating, the President relented and said he would attend. Hours before the party began, for an obvious and unstated reason, he firmly, irrevocably, changed his mind.

  While President Masuda’s commitment to his programs was completely known and acknowledged by his political inner circle, this commitment somehow managed to remain utterly unknown to the press or the people. The host country was mad for soap operas, and yet the President’s unwavering devotion to his television set was so potentially embarrassing his cabinet would have gladly traded it in for an indiscreet mistress. Even members of the government who were themselves known to follow certain programs could not bear to see the obsession played out so rigidly in their head of state. So for many of the people at the party who worked with the President, his absence was noted with disappointment and no real surprise. Everyone else inquired, Has there been an emergency? Is President Masuda unwell?

  “Matters in Israel,” they were told confidentially.

  “Israel,” they whispered. They were impressed, never dreaming that President Masuda would be consulted on matters in Israel.

  There was a clear division among the almost two hundred guests that night: those who knew where the President was and those who didn’t, and so it remained until both sides forgot about him altogether. Mr. Hosokawa barely noticed the absence. He cared very little about meeting the President. What could a president possibly mean on the evening one would meet Roxane Coss?

  Into the presidential void, the Vice President, Ruben Iglesias, stepped forward to host the party. This was not so difficult to imagine. The dinner was being given in his home. Throughout the cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, the sit-down dinner and the creamy singing, his mind stayed on the President. How easy it was to picture his running mate now as Iglesias had seen him a hundred times before, sitting in the dark on the edge of the bed in the master suite of the presidential palace, his suit jacket folded over the arm of a chair, his hands folded and pressed between his knees. He would be watching a small television that sat on his dresser while his wife watched the same program on a large screen in the den downstairs. A picture of a beautiful girl tied to a chair reflected in his glasses. She twisted her wrists back and forth, over and over again, until suddenly she found some slack in the rope and slid one hand free. Maria was free! President Masuda rocked back and clapped his hands silently. To think he had almost missed this, after waiting for weeks! The girl glanced quickly around the storeroom and then leaned forward to untie the coarse rope that bound her ankles.

  Then in an instant the picture of Maria was gone and Ruben Iglesias lifted his face to the lights which were suddenly restored to his living room. He had just begun to register that a bulb was burned out on a side table lamp when men burst into the party from every window and wall. Everywhere the Vice President turned the edges of the room seemed to push forward, yelling. Heavy boots and gun butts pounded through vents, stormed in through doors. People were thrown together and then just as quickly broke apart in a state of animal panic. The house seemed to rise up like a boat caught inside the wide arm of a wave and flip onto its side. Silverware flew into the air, the tines of forks twisting against knife blades, vases smashed into walls. People slipped, fell, ran, but only for an instant, only until their eyes readjusted to the light and they saw the utter uselessness of their fight.

  It was easy to see who was in charge—the older men, the ones shouting orders. They did not introduce themselves at the time and so, for a while, they were thought of not by their names but by their most distinctive features. Benjamin: raging shingles. Alfredo: mustache, first and second fingers missing on left hand. Hector: gold wire glasses that had lost one arm. With the Generals came fifteen soldiers who ranged in age from twenty to fourteen. There were now an additional eighteen people at the party. No one there could count them at the time. They moved and spread. They doubled and tripled as they pulsed around the room, appeared from behind curtains, came down from upstairs, disappeared into the kitchen. They were impossible to count because they seemed to be everywhere, because they were so similar, like trying to count bees in a swarm around your head. They wore faded clothing in dark colors, many in the dull green of shallow, sludgy ponds, a handful in denim or black. Over their clothing they wore a second layer of weapons, sashes of bullets, flashy knives in back pockets, all manner of guns, smaller guns holstered to thighs or sticking up hopefully from belts, larger guns cradled like infants, brandished like sticks. They wore caps with the bills pulled down, but no one was interested in their eyes, only their guns, only their shark-toothed knives. A man with three guns was recorded subconsciously as three men. There were other similarities between the men: they were thin, either from the wanting of food or just the business of growing, their shoulders and knees poked at their clothing. They were also dirty, noticeably so. Even in the confusion of the moment everyone could see that they were smudged and streaked, arms and faces and hands mottled in dirt as if they had arrived at the party by digging up through the gardens and dislodging a panel in the floor.

  This entrance could not have taken more than a minute, and yet it seemed to last longer than all four courses of dinner. There was time for every guest to consider a strategy, revise it thoroughly, and abandon it. Husbands found wives who had drifted to the other side of the room, countrymen sought out their own and stood in blocks, speaking rapidly to one another. It was the consensus of the party that they had been kidnapped not by La Familia de Martin Suarez (so named for a boy of ten who had been shot dead by the government’s army while passing out flyers for a political rally) but by the much more famous terrorists, La Dirección Auténtica, a revolutionary group of murderers whose reputation had been built over five years of wide-ranging brutality. 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. Then the terrorist missing two fingers who was wearing wrinkled green pants and a mismatched jacket raised the large .45-caliber auto and fired two rounds into the ceiling. A splattering of plaster dislodged and dusted a portion of the guests, at which point several of the women screamed, either from the firing of the gun or the touch of something unexpected on their bare shoulders.

  “Attention,” the man with the gun said in Spanish. “This is an arrest. We demand absolute cooperation and attention.”

  Roughly two-thirds of the guests looked frightened, but a scattered third looked both frightened and puzzled. These were the ones leaning towards the man with the gun, instead of away from him. These were the ones that did not speak Spanish. They whispered quickly to t
heir neighbors. The word atención was repeated in several languages. That word was clear enough.

  General Alfredo had anticipated his announcement bringing about a sort of pricked, waiting silence, but no silence came. The whispering caused him to fire into the ceiling again, carelessly this time, hitting a light fixture, which exploded. The room was dimmer, and slivers of glass settled into shirt collars and rested on hair. “Arresto,” he repeated. “Detengase!”

  It may seem surprising at first, such a large number of people unable to speak the language of the host country, but then you remember it was a gathering to promote foreign interest and the two guests of honor did not know ten words of Spanish between them, although arresto made logical sense to Roxane Coss and meant nothing to Mr. Hosokawa. They leaned forward as if it might make understanding easier. Miss Coss was not leaning far, as the accompanist had wrapped himself around her like a security wall, his body ready, anxious, to step in front of any bullet that might stray in her direction.

  Gen Watanabe, the young man who worked as Mr. Hosokawa’s translator, leaned over and spoke the words in Japanese to his employer.

  Not that it would have done him any good in these present circumstances, but Mr. Hosokawa had once tried to learn Italian from a set of tapes he listened to on airplanes. For business purposes he should have learned English, but he was more interested in improving his understanding of opera. “Il bigliettaio mi fece il biglietto,” the tape said. “Il bigliettaio mi fece il biglietto,” he mouthed back silently, not wanting to disturb the other passengers. But his efforts were minimal at best and in the end he made no progress. The sound of the language spoken made him long for the sound of the language sung and soon he was slipping Madama Butterfly into the CD player instead.

  When he was younger, Mr. Hosokawa saw the great advantage of languages. When he was older he wished he had made the commitment to learn them. The translators! They were ever-changing, some good, some full of schoolboy stiffness, some utterly, hopelessly stupid. Some could hardly speak their native Japanese and continually halted conversations to look up a word in a dictionary. There were those who could perform their job well enough, but were not the sort of people one wished to travel with. Some would abandon him the moment the final sentence of a meeting was completed, leaving him stranded and mute if further negotiations were necessary. Others were dependent, wanting to stay with him through every meal, wanting to accompany him on his walks and recount for him every moment of their own lusterless childhoods. What he went through just for a mouthful of French, a few clear sentences of English. What he went through before Gen.

  Gen Watanabe had been assigned to him at a conference on the worldwide distribution of goods in Greece. Normally, Mr. Hosokawa tried to avoid the surprise element local translators so often provided, but his secretary had been unable to locate a Greek translator who could travel on short notice. During the plane ride to Athens, Mr. Hosokawa did not talk with the two senior vice presidents and three sales managers who accompanied him on the trip. Instead, he listened to Maria Callas sing a collection of Greek songs on his Nansei headset, thinking philosophically if the meeting was unintelligible to him, at least he would have seen the country she considered her home. After waiting in line to have his passport stamped and his luggage rifled through, Mr. Hosokawa saw a young man holding a sign, Hosokawa, neatly lettered. The young man was Japanese, which, frankly, was a relief. It was easier to deal with a countryman who knew a little Greek than a Greek who knew a little Japanese. This translator was tall for being Japanese. His hair was heavy and long in the front and it brushed across the top rims of his small round glasses even as he tried to keep it parted to one side. He appeared to be quite young. It was the hair. The hair denoted to Mr. Hosokawa a lack of seriousness, or perhaps it was just the fact that the young man was in Athens rather than Tokyo that made him seem less serious. Mr. Hosokawa approached him, gave the slightest bow of acknowledgment that only included his neck and upper shoulders, a gesture that said, You have found me.

  The young man reached forward and took Mr. Hosokawa’s briefcase, bowing as he did so to the waist. He bowed seriously, though somewhat less deeply, to both of the vice presidents and the three sales managers. He introduced himself as the translator, inquired after the comfort of the flight, gave the estimated driving time to the hotel and the starting time of the first meeting. In the crowded Athens airport, where every second man seemed to sport a mustache and an Uzi, among the jostling of bags and the din of shouting and overhead announcements, Mr. Hosokawa heard something in this young man’s voice, something familiar and soothing. It was not a musical voice, and yet it affected him like music. Speak again.

  “Where are you from?” Mr. Hosokawa asked.

  “Nagano city, sir.”

  “Very beautiful, and the Olympics—”

  Gen nodded, contributing no information about the Olympics.

  Mr. Hosokawa struggled to come up with something else. It had been a long flight and it seemed that in the time he had been on the plane he had forgotten how to make conversation. He felt it should be incumbent upon Gen to attempt to draw him out. “And your family, are they still there?”

  Gen Watanabe paused for a moment as if he were remembering. A swarm of Australian teenagers passed them, each with a knapsack strapped to her back. Their shouts and laughter filled the concourse. “Wombat!” one girl cried out, and the others answered, “Wombat! Wombat! Wombat!” They stumbled in their laughter and clung to each other’s arms. “They are all there,” Gen said, eyeing the backs of the teenagers with cautious suspicion. “My father, mother, and two sisters.”

  “And your sisters, are they married?” Mr. Hosokawa did not care about the sisters, but the voice was something he could almost place, like the notes opening the first act of, what?

  Gen looked at him directly. “Married, sir.”

  Suddenly this dull question took on the edge of something inappropriate. Mr. Hosokawa looked away while Gen took his luggage and led his party through the sliding glass doors into the blasting heat of Greece at noon. The limousine waited, cool and idling, and the men climbed inside.

  Over the next two days, everything Gen touched became a smooth surface. He typed up Mr. Hosokawa’s handwritten notes, took care of scheduling, found tickets to a performance of Orfeo ed Euridice that had been sold out for six weeks. At the conference he spoke in Greek for Mr. Hosokawa and his associates, spoke in Japanese to them, and was, in all matters, intelligent, quick, and professional. But it was not his presence that Mr. Hosokawa was drawn to, it was his lack of presence. Gen was an extension, an invisible self that was constantly anticipating his needs. He felt Gen would remember whatever had been forgotten. One afternoon during a private meeting concerning shipping interests, as Gen translated into Greek what he had just that moment said himself, Mr. Hosokawa finally recognized the voice. Something so familiar, that’s what he had thought. It was his own voice.

  “I don’t do a great deal of business in Greece,” Mr. Hosokawa said to Gen that night over drinks in the bar of the Athens Hilton. The bar was on top of the hotel and looked out over the Acropolis, and yet it seemed that the Acropolis, small and chalky in the distance, had been built there for just this reason, to provide a pleasant visual diversion for the drinking guests. “I was wondering about your other languages.” Mr. Hosokawa had heard him speaking English on the phone.

  Gen made a list, stopping from time to time to see what had been left out. He divided into categories the languages in which he felt he was extremely fluent, very fluent, fluent, passable, and could read. He knew more languages than there were specialty cocktails listed in the Plexiglas holder on the table. They each ordered a drink called an Areopagus. They toasted.

  His Spanish was extremely fluent.

  Half a world away, in a country twice as foreign, Mr. Hosokawa was remembering the Athens airport, all the men with mustaches and Uzis who called to mind the man who held the gun now. That was the day he met Gen, four yea
rs ago, five? After that, Gen came back to Tokyo to work for him full-time. When there was nothing that needed translating, Gen simply seemed to take care of things before anyone knew they needed taking care of. Gen was so central to the way he thought now that Mr. Hosokawa forgot sometimes he didn’t know the languages himself, that the voice people listened to was not his voice. He had not understood what the man with the gun was saying and yet it was perfectly clear to him. At worst, they were dead. At best, they were looking at the beginning of a long ordeal. Mr. Hosokawa had gone someplace he never should have gone, let strangers believe something that was not true, all to hear a woman sing. He looked across the room at Roxane Coss. He could barely see her, her accompanist had her so neatly wedged between himself and the piano.

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