The Slowness of Bel Canto


Most likely you’ve read the luscious novel Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. It’s a bit over a decade old, and it received quite a bit of attention at the time. If you haven’t read it, but plan to, please cease and desist the reading of this piece as I will for certain spoil it for you. Otherwise, join me as there are things to consider about this work. The novel has an whisper thin subversive nature, lightly denigrating the state, as well as all societal roles imbued with hierarchy.

International guests gather in an unnamed South American locale to celebrate a Japanese business leader’s birthday, all are there to hear Bel Canto, the beautiful music emanating from an arranged operatic performance by a famous soprano. Things go badly sometimes with opera, maybe a poor performance or a terrible seat, but in this case the night is marred by hostage taking. The nation’s president is the true target, but he was fortunate enough to have decided to stay home that night to catch his favorite soap opera. The guerrillas take all of the men, as well as the soprano, as substitute hostages. Their nebulous list of demands are never truly taken seriously, and the situation becomes a warmth soaked standoff.

One review of the book indicates that a situation that could have gone Lord of the Flies instead  goes Lord of the Butterflies. The hostages are in the home of the vice-president where the birthday festivities were to occur. They are living in extreme proximity to the hostage takers, many of whom are simply teenagers from the rural poor areas of the nation. Lanky man-boys and even two females guerrillas hold the prisoners in the home during this odd confluence. Something non-linear happens, and the motionless pace of life lends itself to the inhabitants doing what we all know that we should, that is, living in the very moment we are in. No thought to past, no nod to the future. The spark towards beauty comes from the music, the disruption in the air from the voice of the soprano as she settles into daily warbling. Instead of the chain reaction towards violence that is so often the narrative we know, the reaction tumbles into a place of languid sensuality. Those inclined towards such things let themselves fall. A young female militant falls madly in reciprocal love with a Japanese translator. Their  love coalesces as he teaches her to read. Normally this would be a trite literary move, but in the ethereal world created in this strange book, it is natural– what should happen. It’s even comic how they try to engage in ever shorter sessions of learning before succumbing to other pursuits.

All of the characters find a nod to the moment, a call to what they cherish. The prisoners aren’t allowed anything that could be an easy weapon, so even the earthy call of gardening is done with the forced slowness of spoons. They can’t be trusted with knives, so the guerrillas are called on for the sensuous preparation of eggplant, all thrust into realms of unrestrained enjoyment of simple things. The driven businessman who all this formed around, finds delight in the quiet movement of his body through the night, walking without sound to the bed of Roxane, the source of the Bel Canto that brought forth so much beauty. The sight of him sleeping late in a love exacerbated coma confuses all who witness it. Men like that are always up early; they don’t sleep with that assurance. And others take to naps when they desire, this is how we all should sleep, and would if enough pretense could be removed. Oddly enough it takes guns and guards to make this transformation to the now for these individuals. Some suspension of disbelief is required, but it comes easily, naturally even, and all is done with a pace of leisure, which I completely give allegiance to. Hey, I’m just now talking about a book written over a decade ago, and only recently finished 2004’s “In Praise of Slow”, but I did read it quickly so I could mention it to you. I do praise slow, but sadly I don’t get to church often enough to give it proper worship. By that I mean, I hurry too much. I don’t really go to church.

It’s just that the lightness and joy of our existence is so often drowned out by our pace, by the pain of being hurtled towards an inexplicable something always just beyond our grasp. The inherent failure of such a scheme only given the briefest of consideration for a few seconds at 2:00 am by most of us. Then it is hastily shaken off for the cold husk of it. The ability to ignore this is now even more pronounced by the presence of digital distractions. Few moments are allowed to stand without spinning. It’s all as subtle and non-offensive as Butterfly McQueen doing a commercial for the hospital’s new birth center.

But the world we are in is not set up for the slowness of an eggplant’s curves and color. And so in the novel, the newly created world cannot stand. The state steps in, and instead of resolving the stand-off in a peaceful manner, the guerrillas are all shot down, the beautiful girl wanting to learn fresh languages, the boy with the beautiful voice, all of them. Killed and taken from the moment. Even the businessman who just learned, finally, to sleep late in bliss, is caught by a bullet. The hierarchy must stand, the pulse of the seconds must be currency, not the beat of our hearts.

The abrupt end to the novel is much like the raging moment of an alarm clock, our inner world taken and replaced by an artificial directive. The rolling dreams interrupted.

It is stark, and we are taken from the now, moved towards plans and haste. But this is how we really want to live, in a world created by us, not forced upon us.

Kathleen Wallace writes out of the US Midwest and can be reached at klwallace@riseup.net

Kathleen Wallace writes out of the US Midwest and can be reached at klwallace@riseup.net

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