After conservative commentators jumped the gun in assuming the heinous killings in Norway were committed by Islamic extremists, I went looking for something that would act as a literary palate cleanser, a reaffirmation that terrorism is a tactic that is freely, and tragically, available to people of all faiths, national origins, ethnicities, and political persuasions. So, of course, I picked up the copy of Bel Canto that’s been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years.
As it turns out, Bel Canto isn’t a terrific book about terrorism, because the terrorists in the novel are sort of incompetent, not particularly violent, and most importantly for the overall structure and argument of the novel, just as susceptible to the beauty of high and low art as the people they’ve captured. And that ability to be moved by opera, to fall under the sweet hypnosis of of a telenovela, is what enables captors and hostages to come together for a season in a sort of utopian society. There’s a magical realism about it — this isn’t finding a galleon stranded inland and covered in flowers or unusually long-lived gypsies, or anything. But in these fractured times, there is something miraculous about the idea that common knowledge of pop culture could save a life, as it does early in the hostage-taking:
The Catholic priests, sons of those murdering Spanish missionaries, loved to tell the people that the truth would set them free, and in this case, they were exactly correct. The General named Benjamin had cocked his gun and was prepared ot make an example by dispatching the Vice President into the next world, but the soap opera story stopped him. As much as he was sick to know that five months of planning for this one evening to kidnap the President and possibly overthrow the entire government were worthless and he was now saddled with two hundred and twenty-two hostages lying before him on the floor, he believed the Vice President’s story completely. Noe one could make it up. It was too petty and small-minded…But Maria, even in the jungle where televisions were rare, electricity sketchy, and reception nonexistent, people spoke of this Maria. Even Benjamin, who cared for nothing but the freedom of the oppressed, knew something of Maria. Her program came on in the afternoons from Monday to Friday, with a special episode on Tuesday nights which more or less summarized the week for those who had to work during the day. If Maria was to be freed, it was not surprising that it should happen on a Tuesday night.
I can’t actually decide if I think it’s more miraculous that the characters are united by low culture, which is not normally assumed to have transcendent, cosmic power, or that the power of opera, which is not the most accessible art form (and the book spends a lot of time meditating on both what it means to be able to communicate with everyone, and no one), could prove so universally appealing:
Too much time had been spent weeping on the sofa or staring out the window. Now there was music and an accompanist. Roxanne Coss had risked her voice on Gianna Schicchi and found that her voice was still there…no one could shoot her while they sang. By extension they were all safe, and so they pressed in close to the piano to listen…When she got the song exactly right she took it straight through to the end without a flutter of hesitation. it was impossible to say that her singing had improved, but there was something in her interpretation of the lines that had shifted almost imperceptibly. She sang as if she was saving the life of every person in the room.
Anyway, even if Bel Canto isn’t a realistic book about terrorism, it’s a beautiful, resonant book about culture and beauty. Even raving maniacs who kill children want to be able to claim certain transcendent artists as their own, no matter how they have to stretch to do it.