Ann Patchett’s 2001 novel, Bel Canto, fictionalizes the hostage lockdown of Peru’s Japanese Embassy in 1996. Distinguished guests there to celebrate Emperor Hirohito’s birthday were held at gunpoint by the Tupac Amaru terrorist organization. After an early release of women and children, the rest were held for over four months.
In Patchett’s version, the locale is the Vice Presidential residence of an unnamed South American country, and the gathering is in honor of the birthday of a Japanese industrialist the country hopes to woo into opening a factory there. The attraction that brings him is the performance by a renowned opera soprano. The terrorists storm the palatial home, but thwarted by the absence of the President whom they had hoped to capture, must rethink their strategy. After the women and children, except the opera singer, are released, the remaining forty hostages and their nineteen captors – three commanders and a group of battle-trained but unworldly teenagers – settle in.
The commanders make demands the government rejects, presenting demands of their own, and the stalemate stretches on. And as this caesura of time imposes itself on hostages and terrorists alike, the individuals begin to reveal uncelebrated aspects of themselves. Art rises to the fore: the soprano performs, and people never stirred by music take refuge in her singing. The translator who accompanies the industrialist turns out to be the most valuable hostage, able to communicate between the generals and the Red Cross official who visits daily, between hostages from different countries, and while effacing himself, becomes a messenger of hope, love, and the portals of culture.
Patchett makes some fine observations: “The hostages had begun to believe they would not be killed. If what a person wants is his life, he tends to be quiet about wanting anything else. Once the life begins to seem secure, one feels the freedom to complain.”
When a hostage suddenly sits at the piano and plays magnificently, the group is again transformed. “Every note was distinct. It was the measurement of the time which had gotten away from them. It was the interpretation of their lives in the very moment they were being lived.”
In our current situation of COVID-induced isolation, this is a story of how people cope with the suspension of their daily lives, and what resources they find within themselves and among each other, that make the time not only bearable, but an oasis. Now is the perfect time to read Bel Canto.