|Ann Patchett: Bel Canto|
Perennial (Trade Paperback), ISBN 0060934417
Jungle terrorists and international dignitaries make up Bel Canto's house of Babel, where only a translator, Gen, generates meaning. Patchett relates his torpid efforts with her typical lyrical lilt: "Conversations in more than two languages felt awkward and unreliable, like speaking with a mouthful of cotton and Novocain." Gen's work towards communion and order in a surreal prison of gilded ceilings chipped by bullets, counterpoints the art of Roxanne Coss who sings in languages she does not speak and captivates captors she cannot understand, reconciling difference and suspending chaos.
An apparent departure from Patchett's "domestic" novels, Bel Canto signals a broader range and even echoes Gabriel Garcia Marquez when Bel Canto's French ambassador comments on One Hundred Years of Solitude. Not unlike the magic realism of Garcia Marquez's work with its mix of myth and history, Bel Canto turns political strife into allegory. But Patchett's allegory strains a narrative voice which does not rise well beyond its range. Patchett misses the radical differences of language and place that shape thought and act, the intimate details of culture that must be known before they can be implied -- before they legitimize myth. The spelling mistakes in Bel Canto's Spanish are minor signs of this larger error.
The real false notes of Bel Canto occur when Patchett inverts social roles and loans her characters similar internal workings. As the vice-president becomes housekeeper and the French ambassador turns into a cook, terrorists, introduced as "simple people" who "believed simple things," begin to play chess, sing opera and say things like, "tell me about commas." With these inversions Patchett unwittingly privileges the European over the indigenous. Chess trumps quechua. Her South Americans' distinguishing differences recede from a Latin reality -- unlike Garcia Marquez's mythic characters, tied to the real by the odd native detail or quirk. Patchett Americanizes rather than universalizes, and the tensions of individual and cultural difference set up at her novel's inception cede to what D.H. Lawrence called "the awful pudding of One identity."
Bel Canto won the P.E.N./Faulkner award last April, a testament to Patchett's lyrical prose, her capacity for story and the world's need for a message of unity. But despite the loveliness of Bel Canto, one cannot help but consider Latin America's ultimate absence in the story nostalgically, as Ruben Iglesias, the vice president examining his unexamined world, muses over what remained unheard in a beautiful song: "It was like hearing one bird answer another when you can only hear the reply and not the plaintive, original call."
Carol Zapata-Whelan has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from UCLA and teaches Spanish American literature at California State University, Fresno. Her nonfiction has appeared in Newsweek, The Los Angeles Times News Syndicate, El Andar, and in scholarly works. She has forthcoming fiction in The Raven Chronicles and two book anthologies.
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