Bel canto, p.32
Bel Canto, p.32Ann Patchett
The sign of the Red Cross, like the very sign of Switzerland, stood for peaceful neutrality. Messner had stopped wearing his armband a long time ago but he didn’t believe in it any less. 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.
“Get up,” he said again.
Sluggishly, Gen sat up and raised an arm to Messner to be pulled to his feet. Was this a picnic? Had they been drinking so early? No one seemed to be suffering in the least. In fact they all looked pink-cheeked and energetic. “The Generals are probably still over at the playing field,” Gen said. “They might be in the game.”
“You have to help me,” Messner said.
Gen pushed his hair back into some semblance of order with his fingers and then, finally awake, threw his arm across his friend’s shoulder. “When have I not helped you?”
The Generals were not playing ball but they were sitting at the edge of the field in three wrought-iron chairs pulled over from the patio. General Alfredo was shouting instructions at the players, General Hector was watching with intent silence, and General Benjamin had his face tilted up to make an even plane for the sun. All three had their feet buried in the high grass.
Gilbert kicked a beautiful shot and Gen waited until the play was over to announce their guest. “Sir,” he said, meaning whoever looked up. “Messner is here.”
“Another day,” General Hector said. The second arm of his glasses had broken off that morning and now he held them up to his face like a pince-nez.
“I need to speak to you,” Messner said. If his voice had taken on some new urgency none of them heard it over the whooping and shouting of the boys in the game.
“Permission to speak,” General Hector said. General Alfredo hadn’t taken his eyes off the game and General Benjamin hadn’t opened his eyes at all.
“I need to speak to you inside. We need to talk about negotiations.”
Then General Alfredo turned his head in Messner’s direction. “They are ready to negotiate?”
General Hector waved his hand at Messner as if he had never been so bored in all his life. “You’re taking up our time.” He turned his attention back to the game and called out, “Francisco! The ball!”
“Listen to me with seriousness,” Messner said quietly in French. “One time. I have done a great deal for you. I have brought in your food, your cigarettes. I have carried your messages. I am asking that you sit down with me now and talk.” Even in the bright sun Messner’s face was drained of color. Gen looked at him and then he translated the message, trying to keep Messner’s tone of voice. The two of them stood there but the Generals did not look up again. Usually this was Messner’s sign to go but he stood there with his arms folded across his chest and waited.
“Enough?” Gen whispered in English, but Messner didn’t look at him. They waited for more than half an hour.
Finally, General Benjamin opened his eyes. “All right,” he said, his voice as tired as Messner’s. “We’ll go to my office.”
Cesar, who had been so fearless when he sang from Tosca in front of the full house, really did prefer to practice in the afternoons when everyone else was outside, especially since practicing so often meant scales, which he found degrading. And he and Roxane Coss were never alone, there was no such thing as alone. Kato was there to play the piano and Mr. Hosokawa was there because he was always there. Today, Ishmael, who was regularly humiliated in soccer, had set up the chess set on a low table near the piano and played with Mr. Hosokawa. He and Cesar both had guns because if they both chose to stay in the house then they were the default house guards. If Cesar complained about other people staying to listen and if there was someone there to translate from Spanish to English and back into Spanish again (and several people could do this), Roxane Coss would tell him that singing was intended to be heard by other people and he might as well get used to it. He wanted to learn songs, arias, entire operas, but mostly she made him sing scales and nonsense lines. She made him roar and pucker his lips and hold his breath until he had to sit down quickly and put his head between his knees. He would have invited everyone in if she had let him sing a song with the piano, but that, she said, was something to be earned.
“There’s a boy who sings now?” Messner asked. “Is that Cesar?” He stopped in the living room to listen and General Benjamin and Gen stopped with him. Cesar’s jacket was too short in the sleeves and his wrists hung out like broomsticks with hands loosely attached.
General Benjamin was clearly proud of the boy. “He’s been singing for weeks now. You’ve simply come at the wrong time. Cesar is always singing. Señorita Coss says he has the potential to be truly great, as she is great.”
“Remember your breath,” Roxane said, and inhaled deeply to show Cesar what she meant.
Cesar stumbled over a note, suddenly nervous to see the General there.
“Ask her how he’s doing,” Benjamin said to Gen.
Roxane put her hand on Kato’s shoulder and he lifted his fingers from the keys as if she had touched an off switch. Cesar sang three more notes and then stopped when he realized the music was gone. “We’ve only been at this a very short time, but I think he has enormous potential.”
“Have him sing his song for Messner,” General Benjamin said. “Messner is in need of a song today.”
Roxane Coss agreed. “Listen to this,” she said. “We’ve been working on this.”
She sang a few words under her breath so that Cesar knew what he was to sing. He could not read or write in Spanish and certainly he didn’t understand Italian, but his ability to memorize and repeat a sound, to repeat it with such pathos the listener could only imagine he understood what he was saying completely, was uncanny. Once she had prompted Cesar, Kato began to play the opening of Bellini’s “Malinconia, Ninfa Gentile,” the first, short song from Sei Ariette. Gen recognized the music. He had heard it floating through the windows in the afternoons. The boy closed his eyes and then looked towards the ceiling, Oh, Melancholy, you graceful nymph, I devote my life to you. When he forgot a line, Roxane Coss sang it in a surprising tenor voice: I asked the Gods for hills and springs; they listened to me at last. Then Cesar repeated the line. It was not unlike watching a calf rise up for the first time on spindly legs, at the same time awkward and beautiful. With every step he learned the business of walking, with every note he sang with more assurance. It was a very short song, finished almost as soon as it was started. General Benjamin clapped and Messner whistled.
“Don’t praise him too much,” Roxane said. “He’ll be ruined.”
Cesar, his face flushed from pride or lack of breath, bowed his head to them.
“Well, you can’t tell it from looking at him,” General Benjamin said as he walked down the back hallway to his office with Messner and Gen. It was true. The only thing more crooked than Cesar’s teeth was Cesar’s nose. “It makes you wonder. All the brilliant things we might have done with our lives if only we suspected we knew how.”
“I know I will never sing,” Messner said.
“I know that much as well.” General Benjamin flipped the light on in the room and the three men sat down.
“I want to tell you that soon now they will not let me come here anymore,” Messner said.
Gen was startled. Life without Messner?
“You are losing your job,” the General said.
“The government feels that they’ve put enough effort into negotiations.”
“I have seen no effort at all. They have made us no reasonable offers.”
“I am telling you this as someone who likes you,” Messner said. “I will not pretend that we are friends, but I want what is best for everyone here. Give this up. Do it today. Walk outside where everyone can see you and
“What about our demands? Have you spoken to them in a similar way? Have you spoken to them as friends?”
“They will give up nothing,” Messner said. “There is no chance, no matter how long you wait. You have to trust me on this.”
“Then we will kill the hostages.”
“No, you won’t,” Messner said, rubbing his eyes with his fingers. “I said it the first time we met, you are reasonable men. Even if you did kill them it wouldn’t change the outcome. The government would be even less inclined to bargain with you then.”
From down the long hallway in the living room they could hear Roxane sing a phrase and then Cesar repeat the phrase. They went over it again and again and the repetition was beautiful.
Benjamin listened to the music for a while and then, as if he had heard a note that didn’t agree with him, he struck the table they used for chess with his fist. Not that it mattered, the game was in the other room. “Why is it our responsibility to make every concession? Are we expected to give up just because we have such a long history of giving things up? I am trying to free the men I know from prison. I am not trying to join them. 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. He sighed. There was no such place as Switzerland. Truly, time had stopped. He had always been here and he would always be here. “I’m afraid those are your two choices,” he said.
“The meeting is over.” General Benjamin stood up. You could chart the course of this story on his skin, which was burning now. The shingles flared with every word he spoke and every word he listened to.
“It cannot be over. We have to keep talking until we reach some agreement, that is imperative. I am begging you to think about this.”
“Messner, what else do I do all day?” the General said, and then he left the room.
Messner and Gen sat alone in the guest bedroom suite, where hostages were not allowed to sit without guards. They listened to the small French enamel clock strike the hour of noon. “I don’t think I can stand this anymore,” Messner said after several minutes had passed.
Stand what? Gen knew that everything was getting better and not just for him. People were happier. Look, they were outside right now. He could see them from the windows, running. “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. What do you think, that they’ll just keep the wall up and pretend this is a zoo, bring in your food, charge money for tickets? ‘See defenseless hostages and vicious terrorists live together in peaceful coexistence.’ It doesn’t just go on. Someone puts a stop to it and there needs to be a decision as to who will be in charge of the stopping.”
“Do you think the military has plans?”
Messner stared at him. “Just because you’re in here doesn’t mean the rest of the world just shut down.”
“So they will arrest them?”
“All of them.”
But all of them could not possibly include Carmen. It could not include Beatriz or Ishmael or Cesar. When Gen scanned the list he couldn’t think of one he would be willing to give up, even the bullies and the fools. He would marry Carmen. He would have Father Arguedas marry them and it would be legal and binding, so that when they came for them he could say she was his wife. But that would only save one, albeit the most important one. For the others he had no ideas. How had he come to want to save all of them? The people who followed him around with loaded guns. How had he fallen in love with so many people? “What do we do?” Gen said.
“You can try to talk them into giving up,” Messner said. “But honestly, I’m not even sure what good it would do them.”
All his life, Gen had worked to learn, the deep rolling R in Italian, the clutter of vowels in Danish. As a child in Nagano, he sat in the kitchen on a high stool, repeating his mother’s American accent while she chopped vegetables for dinner. She had gone to school in Boston and spoke French as well as English. His father’s father worked in China as a young man and so his father spoke Chinese and had studied Russian in college. In his childhood, it seemed that language changed on the hour and no one was better at keeping up than Gen. He and his sisters played with words instead of toys. He studied and read, printed nouns onto index cards, listened to language tapes on the subway. He did not stop. Even if he was a natural polyglot, he never relied solely on talent. He learned. Gen was born to learn.
But these last months had turned him around and now Gen saw there could be as much virtue in letting go of what you knew as there had ever been in gathering new information. He worked as hard at forgetting as he had ever worked to learn. He managed to forget that Carmen was a soldier in the terrorist organization that had kidnapped him. That was not an easy task. Every day he forced himself to practice until he was able to look at Carmen and only see the woman he loved. He forgot about the future and past. He forgot about his country, his work, and what would become of him when all of this was over. He forgot that the way he lived now would ever be over. And Gen wasn’t the only one. Carmen forgot, too. She did not remember her direct orders to form no emotional bonds to the hostages. When she found it was a struggle to let such important knowledge slip from her memory, the other soldiers helped her forget. Ishmael forgot because he wanted to be the other son of Ruben Iglesias and an employee of Oscar Mendoza. He could picture himself sharing a bedroom with Ruben’s son, Marco, and being a helpful older brother to the boy. Cesar forgot because Roxane Coss had said he could come with her to Milan and learn to sing. How easy it was to imagine himself on a stage with her, a rain of tender blossoms pouring down on their feet. The Generals helped them to forget by turning a blind eye to all the affection and slackness that surrounded them, and they could do that because there was so much they were forgetting themselves. They had to forget that they had been the ones to recruit these young people from their families by promising them work and opportunity and a cause to fight for. They had to forget that the President of the country had neglected to attend the party from which they had so elaborately planned to kidnap him and so they changed their plans and took everyone else hostage. Mostly, they had to forget that they had not come up with a way to leave. They had to think that one might present itself if they waited long enough. Why should they think about the future? No one else seemed to remember it. Father Arguedas refused to think about it. Everyone came to Sunday mass. He performed the sacraments: communion, confession, even last rites. He had put the souls in this house in order and that was the only thing that mattered, so why should he think about the future? The future never even occurred to Roxane Coss. She had become so proficient at forgetting that she never considered the wife of her lover anymore. She was not concerned that he ran a corporation in Japan, or that they did not speak the same language. Even the ones who had no real reason to forget had done so. They lived their lives only for the hour that lay ahead of them. Lothar Falken thought only of running around the house. Victor Fyodorov thought of nothing but playing cards with his friends and gossiping about their love for Roxane Coss. Tetsuya Kato thought of his responsibilities as an accompanist and forgot about the rest.
So even though Gen understood that there was something real and dangerous waiting for them, he began to forget it almost as soon as Messner left the house that afternoon. He busied himself typing up fresh lists of demands for the Generals and when it got later he helped serve dinner. He went to sleep that night and woke up at two A.M. to meet Carmen in the china closet and he told her, but not with the urgency he had felt in the afternoon. It was the sense of urgency he had managed to forget.
“What Messner was saying worried me,” Gen said. Carmen was sitting in his lap, both of her legs to the left of him, both of her arms around his neck. Worried me. Shouldn’t he have said something stronger than that?
And Carmen, who should have listened, who should have asked him questions for her own safety and the safety of the other soldiers, her friends, only kissed him, because the important thing was to forget. It was their business, their job. That kiss was like a lake, deep and clear and they swam into it, forgetting. “We’ll have to wait and see,” Carmen said.
Should they do something, try to escape? There must be a way by now, everyone was lax. Hardly anyone was watching anymore. Gen asked her, his hands up under her shirt, feeling her shoulder blades flex beneath his fingertips.
“We could think about escaping,” she said. But the military would catch her and torture her, that’s what the Generals told them in training, and under the pains of torture she would tell them something. She could not remember what it was that she shouldn’t tell but that would be the thing that would get everyone else killed. There were only two places in the world to go: inside and outside, and the question was where were you safer? Inside this house, in this china closet, she had never felt so safe in all her life. Clearly, Saint Rose of Lima lived inside this house. She was protected here. She was rewarded for her prayers with abundance. It was always better to stay with your saint. She kissed Gen’s throat. All girls dreamed of being in love like this.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes