Tin Ear

Jonathan Levi is a contributing writer to Book Review

The facts: On the evening of Dec. 17, 1996, in Lima, Peru--a very real city afflicted with massive social problems, an autocratic president of Japanese origin and, during the winter months, the garua, a very real fog that muzzles the city from morning till night--more than 400 people celebrating the emperor's birthday at the home of the Japanese ambassador to Peru were taken hostage by 14 terrorists. For six months, these militants, from the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, after releasing the women and the infirm, kept watch over their hostages, including the foreign minister and directors of the anti-terrorist police.

The fiction, as presented by Ann Patchett in her most recent novel, "Bel Canto": On the evening of a birthday party thrown for the president of a large Japanese firm in the capital of an unnamed Latin American country--afflicted with massive social problems, an autocratic president of Japanese origin and, not surprisingly, the garua --terrorists invade the party and take hundreds of partygoers hostage.

Not a bad premise for a novel. The real-life drama in Peru made a serious dent, after all, in the Peruvian Nielsen ratings and electrified much of the rest of the world for a time. The show ended in April 1997, when members of President Alberto Fujimori's military attacked the house, freed the hostages (except for one judge whom the authorities say died of a heart attack) and killed all the militants, some after they had surrendered.

From "The Tempest" and "Gilligan's Island" through "The Poseidon Adventure" and "Titanic," dramas of desert islands, ocean liners and quarantined mansions have given writers the opportunity to examine character and ask the question: Why do some people react with nobility while others display their baser selves?

"Bel Canto" begins promisingly enough, weaving the voices of a respectable variety of characters in the neo-Andean style of Thornton Wilder's "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," the first great American novel about Peru. As the novel progresses and the days of captivity wear into weeks, four voices begin to sing above the chorus.

One voice belongs to Katsumi Hosokowa, founder and president of the largest electronics corporation in Japan, major opera fan and guest of honor. Hosokowa came to Latin America on one condition: that the famous lyric soprano Roxane Coss sing at his birthday party. "For a price that was considerably more than the entire cost of the rest of the evening ... Roxane was persuaded to come to the party, as it fell in between the end of her season at La Scala and the beginning of her appearance at Teatro Colon in Argentina."

By all accounts, she came cheap. "Roxane Coss sang 'Ave Maria'," thinks one listener, a priest, "an event of such startling beauty that

It is not only the rich and the religious who appreciate Roxane. Even after the militants release the women and children, they hold onto Roxane. No siren--and certainly no opera singer--has ever been called upon to soothe so many savage breasts. Small and beautiful--Teresa Stratas, not Jane Eaglen--Roxane invades the dreams of the Russians, the French and even the terrorists. But even though there is little she can say to him in words, after a fortnight in captivity, Roxane gives her heart only to Hosokawa, the man who got her into this fine mess.

The Cyrano who carries the lovers' hearts over the barrier of language is Gen, Hosokawa's translator. Gen is the kind of live wire who "would pick up languages the way other men picked up women, with smooth talk and then later, passion. He would scatter books on the floor and pick them up at random. He read Czeslaw Milosz in Polish, Flaubert in French, Chekhov in Russian, Nabokov in English, Mann in German, then he switched them around: Milosz in French, Flaubert in Russian, Mann in English."

It is Gen's good fortune to fall in love with Carmen, one of two women in the band of militants who makes up in agility and stealth what she lacks in brawn. Sadly, despite his facility for languages, Gen's capacity for expression is limited. "Yes, she was shy, and yes, a terrorist from the jungle," he thinks as he dreams about Carmen, "but she was as smart as any girl he had met at university.... She came into your life through an air-conditioner vent and how she will leave is the question that keeps you awake in the few free moments you have to sleep."

One might dismiss "Bel Canto" as a harmless B-movie fairy tale if Patchett hadn't so clearly patterned her premise on events only five years in the past. But dismissal isn't an option. The recent retrial of the American Lori Berenson, convicted of conspiring with the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, has also given "Bel Canto's" publisher, HarperCollins, a convenient, potentially bankable hook. As Berenson discovered after she was sentenced to 20 years on the basis of conjecture rather than evidence, the public prefers fairy tales to the truth, and that preference can prove disastrous.

The danger of "Bel Canto" is not its simplistic portrait of these two adoring couples. It is in the message that with the right soundtrack, with the right singer singing the right music, all battlefields can become utopias. And what kind of utopia? A militant's paradise: a land of plenty for all the people, a land of justice and equality? Not at all. Patchett's terrorists are innocents with only the vaguest notion of purpose. Although they've memorized the layout of the vice president's house, from the nanny's bedroom to the air-conditioning ducts, their knowledge of Marx is less "Das Kapital" and more "Night at the Opera."

It is the Arcadia of Nike and McDonald's, a globalist utopia filled with good meals and good intentions. The militants refuse to back down on their demands, not because they are purists but because they dream of spending their lives in this mansion, listening to Coss sing Rossini, of sleeping on linen, of soaking in Jacuzzis. The cocktail guests become content with sleeping on the floor, washing only intermittently and forgetting the anxieties of their loved ones in the free world. Move over, Stockholm; make way for the Brigadoon Syndrome.

In a more fictionalized context, Patchett's philosophy could be filed under reactionary claptrap and forgotten. But there is something particularly irresponsible about copying political history--and even worse, recent political history--for purely romantic purposes. Margaret Mitchell got away with it, certainly, but her "Gone With the Wind" came out many decades after the Civil War.

Mike Nichols tried something similar when he directed Ariel Dorfman's "Death and the Maiden" on Broadway, a play set in Chile in the aftermath of the assassination of Salvador Allende and the brutal dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Nichols chose to ignore the political subtleties of the time--perhaps estimating that the audience wouldn't appreciate the political niceties of torture--and directed the play for laughs. He was dutifully tortured by the press. Patchett might take notice.

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