Together in Spirit

An online reading group ('TIS a reading group!) to bring together friends, and friends of friends, who aren't able to be in a conventional reading group due to constraints of time or geography.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Bel Canto, reprised

Full marks to Valerie, for making me go back to the text to substantiate my remarks... I can't, of course, find the particular bits where Patchett tells us that no hostages will be shot by their captors (I think that's what she said - the only version I can devise whereby she's right, and yet misleading) and where all the captors will die. I had remembered only the gist of the first one, which I think is one vital way in which Patchett, to answer Val's question, tells us and yet doesn't ruin the tension. She tells us enough to reassure us at that point (when we don't care for the captors so don't realise we ought to mind what happens to them), and then gambles that we'll forget that Carmen, Cesare etc are doomed. We therefore get involved with them wholeheartedly, thinking they might have a future. I think Patchett keeps the Generals more distant from us, and from the hostages, so we tend to see them, and them only, as the real captors. It's the Generals who seem fatalistic and ignore the negotiator's attempts to help them survive, wheras the younger captors are not shown doing anything reprehensible, and they act in hope of a future, so Patchett certainly had me keeping them in a separate mental box and hoping that the inevitable punishment would only fall on the leaders. Which I think is a way of side-stepping the issue of them being criminals, and keeping things like criminal acts out of the heaven-on-earth which Patchett has been carefully constructing.

It was this heaven-on-earth which was another way in which Patchett had me anticipating a merciful ending. She goes to such lengths to show hostages and captors being positively transformed by their experience: lengths which threaten readers' very acceptance of the novel. I can't see why she'd take such a risk unless it was utterly crucial to her purpose, and part of the ending.

I accept that hoping for a merciful ending was rather optimistic of me, but I think another reason for my hope was the echoes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, as Val says. The South American setting and the transforming power of love (against all odds) were very "him". I think Patchett didn't do Marquez's magical realism in the same form - no people levitating or having second sight or whatever - but she certainly espoused what I would call an emotional version, whereby all sorts of traumatised and afflicted and trapped people suddenly find themselves wildly happy, fulfilled, loving and talented. Even singing scales, as has been noted, is delightful as a dawn chorus. This isn't normal, is it?

So, with such frankly unlikely things going on, I felt it would at least be internally consistent for an ending in that vein. I find with many works of art - whether written, acted or filmed - that what matters to me is the internal consistency rather than the actual plausibility, as long as I have been persuaded to suspend disbelief and buy into it. In the end, of course, I was wrong, and the "point" of the heaven-on-earth was not that it would continue. Instead it was wonderful while it lasted, but doomed not to last.

All of which is fine. Except the epilogue doesn't hold to that pattern. What happened to Gen and Roxanne was so horrible - and so cleverly unexpected, since Mr Hosegawa as a casualty had not been on my radar - that I think Patchett felt compelled to do something about it. However much the characters may have had their political awareness raised by their experiences, I think that would have been overwhelmed by their personal losses. This would stop them experiencing it as a positive experience, which would undermine Patchett's aim (which she risked so much to achieve). So, my revised view of her pattern is : romantic, leading to tragic, leading to romantic-despite-tragic. And, thereby the recreation, for some, of heaven-on-earth, as underlined by Thibault's reunion with his (now beloved) wife. One strength of the epilogue, I think, was the combination of the horrible things still having happened, but with a counterweight. Would you actually have enjoyed the novel with just the really bleak ending? Honestly?