Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

6 Mar

Amy gave me a book a few years ago, Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett, that I found again a couple weeks ago and that I really enjoyed reading. Amy had liked the book and wrote a note on the first page that she hoped I would enjoy the world the book creates as much as she did. Thanks, my friend, I enjoyed it immensely.

The author creates a wonderful world, where time stops to matter, a world that I knew would end and that I was loath to leave. It isn’t about opera, but the story is weaved around opera. The story is that of a group of terrorists –adult and children– somewhere in South America, who hold hostage forty or so men, and a soprano, during several months.

Here are the quotes that I liked particularly.

They were so shaken by the beauty of her voice that they wanted to cover her mouth with their mouth, drink in. Maybe music could be transferred, devoured, owned. What would it mean to kiss the lips that had held such a sound?

He saw La Sonnambula three nights in a row. He had never sought her out or made himself to be anything more than any other member of the audience. He did not assume his appreciation for her talent exceeded anyone else’s. He was more inclined to believe that only a fool would not feed about her exactly how he felt. There was nothing more to want than the privilege to sit and listen.

No one could see her objectively anyway. Even those who saw her for the first time, before she had opened her mouth to sing, found her radiant, as if her talent could not be contained in her voice ans so poured like light through her skin.

There was a television in this room. A few of them had seen a television before, a wooden box with a curved piece of glass that threw back your reflection in peculiar ways. They were always, always broken. That was the nature of televisions. There was talk, big stories about what a television once had done, but no one believed it because no one had seen it.

His own daughters presented him with a mathematical impossibility, one minute running around the house wearing pajamas covered in images of the blankly staring Hello, Kitty, the next minute announcing they had dates who would be picking them up at seven. He believed his daughters were not old enough to date and yet clearly by the standards of this country they were old enough to be members of a terrorist organization. He tried to picture them, their plastic daisy barrettes and short white socks, picking at the door frame with the sharp tip of a knife.

Russian was by no means his best language, and if his concentration lapsed even for a moment it all became a blur of consonants, hard Cyrillic letters bouncing like hail off a tin roof.

Always we would go to the opera. As young men we would stand in the back for a few rubles, money we did not have at the time. But then jobs came we had seats, and with better jobs came proper seats. You could mark our rise in the world by our position in the opera house, by what we paid and, later, what we were given. Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Prokofiev, we saw everything that was Russian.

Again and again he sang the chorus, almost whispering for fear someone might hear him, mock him, punish him. He felt this too strongly to think that it was something he could get away with. Still, he wished he could open himself up the way she did, bellow it out, dig inside himself to see what was really there.

“God forgives you,” the priest said.
Beatriz opened her eyes and blinked at the priest. “So it will go away?”
“You’ll have to pray. You’ll have to be sorry.”
“I can do that.” Maybe that was the answer, a sort of cycle of sinning and sorriness. She could come every Saturday, maybe more often than that, and he would keep having God forgive her, and then she would be free to go to heaven.

She closed her eyes and looked for her dark pile of sins, hoping she could release a few more on her own without the help of the priest, thinking that fewer sins would give her a lightness that these new men would recognize. But the sins were gone. She looked and looked behind the darkness of her eyelids but there was not a single sin left and she was amazed.

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