Bel canto, p.34
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       Bel Canto, p.34

           Ann Patchett
 

  “It’s a beautiful city.”

  “And your work?” Because Gen’s work had been Mr. Hosokawa.

  “I mostly translate books now. It leaves my schedule more flexible. I like to go to rehearsals with Roxane.”

  “Yes, of course,” Thibault said absently, and pushed his hands deep into his pockets as they walked. “I miss hearing her sing.”

  “You should come visit.”

  A boy on a bright red moped sped past and then two men with dachshunds came out of a bakery and walked towards them. The city wasn’t deserted after all. “Will you miss Japan?”

  Gen shook his head. “It’s better for her here, better for me, too, I’m sure. All opera singers should live in Italy.” He pointed to the building on the corner. “There’s a bar that’s open.”

  Thibault stopped. He would have missed it. He hadn’t been paying attention. “Good, then we’ve done our job. Let’s go back for our wives.”

  But Gen didn’t turn. He stared at the bar for a long time as if it were a place he had once lived years before.

  Thibault asked him if something was wrong. He froze up like that from time to time himself.

  “I wanted to ask you,” Gen said, but it took him another minute to find the words. “Carmen and Beatriz are never mentioned in the papers. Everything I’ve read says there were fifty-nine men and one woman. Is that the way they reported it in France?”

  Thibault said there had been no mention of the girls.

  Gen nodded. “I suppose it makes a better story that way, fifty-nine and one.” He wore a white rose boutonniere on his wedding suit. Edith had brought it for him in a cardboard box along with the bouquet of white roses for Roxane to carry. She had pinned the flower on his lapel herself. “I’ve called the papers and asked them to publish a correction, but no one is interested. It’s almost as if they never existed.”

  “Nothing you read in the papers is true,” Thibault said. He was thinking about the first time they had to cook dinner, all those chickens, and the girls and Ishmael coming in with the knives.

  Still Gen wouldn’t look at him. He talked as if he were telling the story to the bar. “I called Ruben, did I tell you that? I called to tell him about the wedding. He said that he thought we should wait, that we would be wrong to rush into anything. He was very kind about it, you know how Ruben would be. But we didn’t want to wait. I love Roxane.”

  “No,” Thibault said. “You did the right thing. Getting married was the best thing that ever happened to me.” Though now he was wondering about Carmen. Why had he never thought of it before? He could plainly remember them together, time after time standing at the back of the room, whispering, the way her face brightened when she turned it to Gen. Thibault did not wish to see her face again.

  “When I hear Roxane sing I am still able to think well of the world,” Gen said. “This is a world in which someone could have written such music, a world in which she can still sing that music with so much compassion. That’s proof of something, isn’t it? I don’t think I would last a day without that now.”

  Even when Thibault closed his eyes and rubbed them with his thumb and forefinger he could still see Carmen. Her hair in a braid on the back of her slender neck. She is laughing. “She is a beautiful girl,” he said. They had found the bar. He needed to get back to Edith now. He looped his arm around his friend’s shoulder and guided him back in the direction of the Piazza San Martino. He felt himself growing breathless, and he had to concentrate on the muscles in his legs to keep from running. He was sure that Gen and Roxane had married for love, the love of each other and the love of all the people they remembered.

  When they turned the corner the street opened into the bright square and there the wives were, still sitting on the edge of the fountain. They were looking in the direction of the cathedral but then Edith turned and when she saw him, the joy in her face! They stood up and walked towards the two men, Edith with her dark hair shining, Roxane still in her hat. Either one of them could have been the bride. Thibault was sure there had never been such beautiful women, and the beautiful women came to them and held out their arms.

  My love and gratitude to my editor Robert Jones.

  Friendship and Love: An Interview with Ann Patchett

  From her home in Nashville, the author spoke by phone with Sean Abbott, a senior editor at HarperCollins, on April 6, 2001.

  SA: As I read Bel Canto, I imagined the mise en scène in two ways: I did the usual mental translation of novel-into-film that I do when I read a realistic novel, but I also read it as novel-into-opera. Of course, a story in which an opera singer is held hostage by guerillas need not necessarily be seen as the basis for an opera, but Bel Canto is clearly that. Do you agree with this reading?

  AP: I do. 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.

  SA: Really — melodrama?

  AP: Writers are really discouraged from being melodramatic. Certainly as a writing teacher I try to turn my students away from melodrama. And yet opera is so wonderfully melodramatic. I wanted to write a book that would be flat-out melodramatic in that operatic way.

  SA: I can’t remember a single melodramatic passage in Bel Canto.

  AP: Well, it is and it isn’t a melodrama. It’s not melodramatic in a bad soap-opera kind of way, I would hope, but it has all of the elements of melodrama.

  SA: But everything is earned, which is never the case in a flat-out melodrama, and not often the case in plenty of operas, for that matter. It takes a long time for the principal romances to develop in Bel Canto, and longer still before the lovers are in bed together. Everything is totally believable on a human scale, in terms of the progress of time and relationships.

  AP: Right. But I was thinking about a core concept of melodrama when writing this book. That it is larger than life. Everything is sort of worse than you can imagine and better than you can imagine.

  SA: Well, then, let’s talk a bit about the reality behind this. Because an obvious source of inspiration for Bel Canto was the guerilla seizure of the Japanese embassy in Lima a few years ago. That also stretched over several months, I believe. [On December 17th, 1996, fourteen heavily armed members of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) seized more than 400 people attending a diplomatic reception at the residence of the Japanese ambassador in Lima. On April 22, 1997, Peruvian special forces launched a raid on the embassy compound, killing all fourteen of the MRTA insurgents and freeing the remaining seventy-two hostages.]

  AP: You know, nobody gets that.

  SA: Really?

  AP: Of all the people who’ve read the book, maybe three people have said that to me. And I find it fascinating because I thought that the response would be just the opposite: “How dare you co-opt this thing that happened to these people!” But nobody has a clue.

  SA: Well, that’s good old American obliviousness for you, I guess. But to be fair, at one point in the book it’s observed that, after a few weeks, life has returned to normal in the city where this “hostage drama” is playing out. And that’s exactly what happened in reality, I think. Certainly by the time the military went in and killed all the guerillas, the response up here was, “Oh, right — that.”

  AP: Right.

  SA: How much research did you do into this actual incident? Did you visit Peru?

  AP: It’s sort of a funny story because it’s one of those classic pointless novel-research junkets in one sense. I wanted to go to Peru, I felt I owed it to the book, but I kept putting it off. The whole idea made me nervous. I don’t speak Spanish; I knew almost nothing about Peru. Finally, Karl, my long-term person, sort of pushed me into doing it. He said, “You need to go to Peru, so let’s go.” The trip got to be a little complicated. Originally, I was going to set the book not in Lima but up in the mountains, because I wanted to do something with altitude sickness and its affect on
the characters. So we went up to La Paz and Lake Titicaca as well.

  SA: Did you experience altitude sickness?

  AP: Well, that’s just the thing — it goes away after a few days, so it wasn’t going to work for the book. It wouldn’t have been interesting, because the book takes place over such a long period of time. So we got to Lima at about ten o’clock at night and asked our driver to take us in the morning over to the Japanese embassy, and he said, “No, we don’t take people over there on tours. We don’t like to talk about that.” Finally we convinced him to at least drive us by that same night. We get to this very nice neighborhood, which could be a very nice neighborhood anywhere, and of course there’s no embassy. The building had been torn down. There are plans to build a memorial there eventually, but for now it’s just an empty lot with a wall surrounding it. You can’t see over the wall and there’s nothing to see anyway. So we pass the wall and I say thank you very much, and we drive on. Karl says to me, “That’s it? We came to Peru for that? You’re finished with your research?” [Laughs] We didn’t even get out of the car. I’m sure I could have written the book without seeing it, but it was good to be there in some indefinable way.

  SA: It was an empty space that you had to fill in, repopulate, bring back to life.

  AP: Sure.

  SA: And actually being in Lima must have helped with some shading.

  AP: Small details, tiny things. For example, Beatrice complains at some point that she wants to be outside again, walking down the street and having men honk their horns at her. That I picked up there — not because anyone was honking at me, of course! [Laughs] But when a young woman walks down the street in Lima, every man who drives by toots the horn at her. Two taps, three taps: it’s a kind of Morse code of attractiveness. Those are the kinds of things you pick up, the little cultural nuances.

  SA: Like the soap operas. There’s something about that Latin American passion for soap operas. I loved that early scene of the President sitting on the edge of the bed, watching his soap.

  AP: You know, that detail is true: [former Peruvian President Alberto] Fujimori was obsessed with soap operas and wouldn’t hold meetings during a broadcast.

  SA: Was he supposed to have been present at that party at the Japanese embassy and cancelled because of a soap opera, or is that your embellishment?

  AP: That’s my embellishment, but he did have a big soap opera problem.

  SA: So what were the guerillas doing in that embassy? What was their goal, do we know?

  AP: Their goal was to free their jailed comrades but also to draw attention to the Peruvian prison system, which is as brutal and inhumane as they come. They basically bury people alive in these mountain prisons. The cells are dug into the mountains along a network of tunnels — little rooms you can’t stand up in. They’re truly, truly horrible.

  SA: A fact brought to the fore again recently by the Berenson case. [American Lori Berenson, then twenty-six, was convicted in 1996 by a secret military court of conspiring with the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement to attack Peru’s congress. A life sentence in prison was voided by a military court in August of 2000 and a new civil trial of the case commenced in March of 2001.]

  AP: Exactly. And so their goal was to call attention to that. Now, I don’t want to seem to be sympathetic to people who take others hostage, but I think these people had a pretty solid argument.

  SA: The Vice President’s house in your book, by contrast, is precisely not a hellhole. It’s a place of refuge where the best human qualities may blossom. Apropos of that, let me just read aloud this lovely epigraph you chose from The Magic Flute, which, come to think of it, is also a kind of hostage drama.

  AP: I love those lines. Go ahead.

  SA: Speaker: Stranger, what do you seek or ask from us?

  Tamino: Friendship and love.

  Speaker: And are you prepared even if it costs you your life?

  Tamino: I am.

  AP: Do you want to weep?

  SA: Yeah, but also let me just take off my editor’s eyeshade and place it over my heart, because it’s so rare that you get an epigraph that’s right on the money like that — one you can flip back to having just finished the book and say, “Oh, perfect!”

  AP: I’ve always thought an epigraph an example of really good writing followed by an example of often really mediocre writing. [Laughter]

  SA: Look, if we start to think that way here we’ll all be out of work very soon. [Laughter] But, friendship and love: You evoke these in Bel Canto, you create this ideal society, and with it you make us confront the enormous problems that come with the creation of an ideal society. It’s a society that came into being at gunpoint, organized itself around opera, chess, and French cooking, and so is such a massive contradiction that it cannot possibly survive — and does not. It presents a rather large political and philosophical problem, doesn’t it?

  AP: I think that the problem is twofold: One, the guerillas end up saving the people they don’t care about saving. If you’re thinking in terms of some sort of spiritual salvation, they’re taking the wealthiest people and somehow redirecting their lives towards the better, which was not the Generals’ intention. At the same time they’re taking these very poor children and saving them through exposure to the kinds of things that come with wealth and luxury. All the Generals really know is that they want something to be different and something to be better. But they really haven’t thought it out beyond that. And so what they get is not what they had vaguely formulated in their minds. They get something different and they get something better, but it is a passage into a world that is tied to the very materialism that is of course bringing down “their people.”

  SA: Right, and it’s this that the people end up praying for. Here’s a passage about Carmen at the end of chapter five: “Yes, the Generals wanted something better for the people, but weren’t they [the guerillas] the people? Would it be the worst thing in the world if nothing happened at all, if they all stayed together in this generous house? Carmen prayed hard. . . . What she prayed for was nothing. She prayed that God would look on them and see the beauty of their existence and leave them alone.” A romantic dream about a beautiful world that cannot possibly be sustained.

  AP: Right.

  SA: Opera, of course, is also a beautiful world that can’t be sustained, which is probably why people become so nutty about it. Mr. Hosokawa is such a nut. At the risk of being brusque, but to come right out with it, since you did write this book, Bel Canto, where do you fall on the opera nut scale?

  AP: I’m not one, but I used to have a boyfriend who was an opera nut. He was once a Canadian quiz kid and he had memorized the Grove Encyclopedia of Opera by the time he was eight. He knew everything in the world about opera. In the years that we were together he played opera all the time and I would walk into the room and think, Oh that’s nice. [Laughs] We never talked about it. Probably something lodged in my brain during those years, but I kick myself that I never did the work to figure it all out when the quiz kid was at my disposal. Years later, when I was watching this [Peruvian hostage] story unfolding on the news it seemed so much like an opera to me. Though at that point in my life I had never been to an opera.

  SA: No!

  AP: Yeah.

  SA: Wow.

  AP: But I was watching this and I thought, What this tragedy needs is an opera singer. I started constructing my plot, and then I set about learning opera. What I discovered was that I really genuinely love opera.

  SA: How did this wanting to figure it all out influence the writing of the book?

  AP: Very simply, if Roxane was singing something in a given scene I would put the aria on and have it play ten times over. I would try to write the moment as I was listening to it. I became hugely, hugely interested in opera.

  SA: What an amazing story. And to think that this ugly episode in Lima led you to opera and to this book. But it seems appropriate, because a central theme of Bel Canto is the bringing together of people into
a community who would otherwise have had nothing to do with each other.

  AP: Right.

  SA: Let’s talk about the language problem, because of course only pockets of people can actually speak directly to one another in the book. Everything else has to go through this extraordinary fellow, Gen [SA pronounces this Jen], the translator.

  AP: Which is actually Gen [hard G].

  SA: Oh.

  AP: No one [who has read the book] has said Gen; everyone says Jen.

  SA: Yeah, why do we do that?

  AP: I named this character after someone I know, Gen Watanabe, because Gen Watanabe is the Japanese equivalent of John Smith. Gen told me right from the start, “The only problem with using my name is that everyone will say Jen.” I don’t know what I’m going to do when I have to give a reading from this book. I don’t know how to pronounce many of the names of these characters.

  SA: Uh oh! But on that note, let’s pause to consider that till now your books have been set in the United States: let’s see — Kentucky [The Patron Saint of Liars, 1992]; Memphis [Taft, 1994]; and L.A. [The Magician’s Assistant, 1997]. What’s it like as a novelist to radically shift coordinates like this?

  AP: Well, you might notice that Bel Canto takes place largely inside a living room [laughs], so it doesn’t matter at all, really, where the book is set. But I will say that my books are inspired by my books. There can be something that I’ll get into in a minor way in one book and then I’ll think that I want to open it up some more later on. The Magician’s Assistant was a book about people who were all from someplace else, trying to assimilate in some sense. I was very interested in that theme and I thought I’d like to do a lot more with it in my next book. So that was part of the reason that I got to South America for Bel Canto. But, let’s be honest — it’s not an especially bold or insightful rendering of South America. It’s about a living room in South America. [Laughs]

 
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