viernes, 22 de julio de 2011

Bel Canto by Anna Patchett

As a music lover, I wish I could sing the praises of Anna Patchett’s Bel Canto. I always look forward to reading books about musicians, especially composers, and usually I am disappointed. Bel Canto was no exception. Anna Pratchett is in good company, however, for I was not convinced by Ian McEwan’s character in Amsterdam, nor Carpentier’s in The Lost Steps, to name but a couple. Being a singer, I thought that Bel Canto’s principal character, Roxane Coss, might be more responsive to a writer’s pen, but she wasn’t. Music is always a strange, inconstant friend. Though it never revolts, it can often disappoint. Even when programmes and performers seem completely matched, a spark may fail to ignite the whole into complete experience. Bel Canto lacked that spark.

Bel Canto’s programme presents much promise. Roxane Coss is a world renowned singer. She has performed everywhere, sung all the famous roles in the greatest houses and worked under the baton of every maestro. People don’t just admire her: it goes much further than that. Mr Hosokawa, a Japanese corporate bigwig, is one such worshipper. When, for some reason, he finds himself in an unnamed amalgam of South American countries on his birthday, he is treated to an invitation only recital by said soprano at the house of Ruben Iglesias, Vice-President of the republic, no less. It’s interesting to note that the President himself had been invited, but he never attends any function that clashes with Coronation Street, or its Spanish language equivalent on the tele. So, while Roxane Coss is waxing lyrical through her arias, the President no doubt is up to his neck in innuendo, melodrama and pouting looks that tell of treachery, infidelity, scorn and envy. Not a bit like opera… just add soap.

Back in the Vice-President’s house, an admixture of invitees lap up the Italian in their diverse languages. There are Japanese speakers, Italian, French, Russian and Spanish, amongst others, as well as the occasional sentence in English. A young Japanese interpreter in the employ of Mr Hosokawa, a lad called Gen, has all the gen needed to translate, sometime with a touch of humour. His skills were always going to be needed, but they become essential when the evening is hijacked by a terrorist group seeking hostages and their leverage. It’s not quite, “Take this residence to Cuba”, but it’s well on the way. While Graham Greene in his Honorary Consul used the incompetence of the act as plot device, strangely Ann Patchett never really explores just why it was that her own gang of terrorists missed their own boat by such a long way.

But then these guys – and gals – are not real terrorists, at least not the real terrorists that actually kill people. They are of a more refined type, a kind of semi-professional bunch with military connections as well as pretensions, but not much of an ideology. Early on, the unfortunate Vice-President gets one in the mush and needs sewing up around the face. It’s a pity that wound seemed not to affect his speech.

So here are the elements. A worshipping assemblage of music lovers divided by language but united by their interpreter are held hostage in a prominent residence which becomes besieged. They are held together by the commonality of their plight and the heavenly voice of Roxane Coss, which, luckily for all of them, holds up despite the strain. The relationships between the hostages, their love of music, their situation alongside tensions provided by captors and their pursuers ought to offer a wonderful opportunity for character, plot, relationships and reminiscences to come to the fore. Unfortunately, they don’t and frankly, not much else emerges to fill the void.

There’s a couple of romances, French lessons in the broom cupboard under the stairs, unlikely endings, even less likely beginnings. There’s a modicum of humour, but neither of the book’s threads, its music and its languages, are developed. It’s worth reading, but, like a concert where the performers didn’t gel, it ultimately disappoints.

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