In Ann Patchett’s novel Bel Canto, which won the Orange Prize in 2002, a group of international businessmen and diplomats have gathered at the vice-president’s house in an unnamed and, despite some superficial resemblances to Peru, fictitious South American country for Katsumi Hosokawa’s 53rd birthday party. Hosokawa is the head of a large Japanese electronics firm, and the ‘host country’ is hoping he’ll build a factory there. They’ve lured him over by hiring the famous American soprano Roxane Coss to sing after dinner. The party is interrupted by a group of gunmen who burst into the vice-presidential mansion through the air-conditioning vents before the encore and take everyone hostage. Their plan had been to grab the president and get out, but he’s not there, having decided at the last minute to stay at home and watch his favourite soap opera instead. So the kidnappers settle in for the long haul.
Most of the hostages – the servants, children and women, apart from Coss – are released almost immediately; only the best ransom prospects are kept behind. Everyone quickly falls prey to Stockholm Syndrome, and the besieged mansion turns into an unlikely utopia, where captives and captors fall in love with one another and reveal or discover hidden talents that either they or their colleagues never knew they had. Tetsuya Kato, one of Hosokawa’s underlings, turns out to be a talented pianist, which comes in handy because Coss would like to sing and the accompanist she brought with her died on the first day of the siege of diabetic ketoacidosis (at least, that’s the immediate cause of his death; at a deeper level he dies of love for Coss, refusing to leave her side even though he’s run out of insulin). Kato emerges in best soap opera fashion from among the anonymous ranks of the hostages halfway through the book to fulfil an important plot function: ‘Without his playing the story might have missed him altogether.’ The first piece he plays is something called ‘Chopin’s Nocturne opus 9 in E Flat major no 2’, which doesn’t inspire much confidence in Patchett’s grasp of musicology.
A while later, one of the teenage kidnappers, Cesar, turns out to have an incredible singing voice, and Coss starts giving him lessons. Another of the underage gunmen turns out to be a natural at chess, having taught himself by watching Hosokawa play amicably against one of the kidnappers’ leaders. Another, one of two girls, has a gift for languages, and meets Hosokawa’s young polyglot translator in the china cupboard for romantic midnight reading lessons.
If this all sounds too cosily implausible, it is, but to give Patchett the benefit of the doubt for a moment, perhaps it’s meant to be: she obviously didn’t set out to rewrite Die Hard. The siege is a narrative device for bringing together characters who wouldn’t otherwise meet, let alone spend enough time together to find out how much they have, surprisingly, in common. But the novel suffers from the artificiality of it all, not to mention the lack of dramatic tension: everyone’s so tiresomely friendly and co-operative all the time. The book asks to be admired for the way it allows the reader to see a group of terrorists as a collection of sympathetic individuals, but Patchett makes the job too easy by never showing them to us as a group of terrorists in the first place, despite insisting on the label: their cause is noble; they don’t kill or terrorise anyone; there’s never anything not to like.
The Arcadian idyll is eventually broken up when the military burst in, having spent four and a half months digging a tunnel under the property (you have to wonder why they didn’t just come over the garden wall). The faceless soldiers gun down the kidnappers. The suddenness of the violence is shockingly effective after so many pages of easy languor, even though we’re told at the beginning of the story that ‘the terrorists … would not survive.’
The deaths of the talented gunmen shouldn’t be more regrettable than those of their more ordinary comrades, but they are because the story has paid more attention to them all along. The novel confuses two different injustices here: on the one hand, the state’s shoot-to-kill siege-busting policy is clearly wrong; on the other, it’s unfair that an unusually beautiful singing voice won’t get you onto the stage at La Scala if you were born dirt poor in a remote village in the Andes. But the notion that Cesar’s premature demise is especially tragic because of the wasted talent it represents needs to be treated with scepticism. And scepticism isn’t Patchett’s mode.
Bel Canto displays an unexamined faith in the moral power of ‘art’. The kidnappers waiting in the air-conditioning ducts are enchanted by Coss’s voice. There’s an implication that the siege could have been a lot bloodier if it weren’t for her Orphic ability to soothe the terrorists’ savage breasts with her singing. You have to admire Patchett for her unabashed way with cliché. The rooks in the vice-presidential chess set for some reason have horses’ heads, but Patchett makes no such imaginative substitutions when it comes to national stereotypes: the hostages are an assortment of polite Japanese businessmen, tragic Russians, overemotional Italians and amorous, gourmet Frenchmen, while a meticulous Swiss Red Cross official conducts the negotiations with the authorities.
For many of them, Coss’s singing conjures up a moment from childhood, a seminal early encounter with art. Hosokawa remembers the first time his father took him to the opera. One of the tragic Russians recalls a precious book of Impressionist paintings owned by his grandmother. But the only cultural milestone in my childhood that came to mind as I read Bel Canto was the final episode of the fifth season of Dynasty, when Amanda Carrington’s wedding to Prince Michael of Moldavia is interrupted by a gang of Balkan rebels bursting into the royal chapel and shooting everyone down with machine-guns.
The vaporous metaphorical role played by music in Bel Canto is taken in Patchett’s new novel, State of Wonder, by medical science. Marina Singh is a mild-mannered 42-year-old research scientist at Vogel pharmaceuticals in Minnesota. She used to be a gynaecologist but switched to pharmacology after an emergency caesarean section went gothically wrong – she sliced the baby’s eye with a scalpel, blinding it – and now works in statin development. Lowering cholesterol clearly isn’t a priority for Vogel: there are only two researchers working on it, Marina and her friend and colleague Anders Eckman, beavering away in their little lab with a fridge full of blood samples. And for a few months now Marina’s been working alone, since Mr Fox – Vogel’s CEO and Marina’s secret lover, though she still thinks of him as Mr Fox – sent Anders off to the Amazon rainforest to check up on a rogue researcher, Dr Annick Swenson, who’s supposed to be developing a fertility drug but refuses to send back any progress reports. The markets are getting jittery and Vogel’s share price is under threat.
The novel opens with the news of Eckman’s death: Dr Swenson has sent Mr Fox a curt aerogram, saying that he died of a fever and has been buried in the jungle. Eckman’s wife, Karen, doesn’t believe he’s dead, and Mr Fox still wants to know how Dr Swenson’s research is coming along. So Marina reluctantly, inevitably, agrees to go to Brazil to find out. The not-so-fantastic Mr Fox thinks Marina is especially suited for the task because she used to work under Dr Swenson (Vogel’s board wanted to send Marina in the first place but because of their relationship he fixed it for Eckman to go instead). Marina thinks she’s especially unsuited because Dr Swenson was her terrifying boss when she botched the C-section.
Before leaving, Marina goes to an epidemiologist for her yellow fever and tetanus shots, and starts taking Lariam as a malaria prophylactic. It brings back the nightmares she had as a child, when she took Lariam before flying to India to visit her father. In the dreams, she lets go of her father’s hand in the middle of a crowd and ‘is alone somewhere in the sea of Calcutta, folded inside the human current of chattering Hindi which she does not understand’. She wakes up screaming and sweating, at home in Minnesota, on the plane and in her Manaus hotel room, where she’s kicking her heels waiting for Dr Swenson to show up. Her driver puts the word around: ‘Dr Singh conhece o Dr Swenson.’ They eventually meet at the opera house – where else? – during a clunkingly symbolic performance of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (‘she was Orfeo, and there was no question that Anders was Euridice’), and the next day head down the murky brown waters of the Rio Negro in a boat driven by a deaf-mute Indian boy, arriving after dark at the Lakashi village.
You may have spotted one or two errors in the previous paragraph. Maybe the factual mistakes don’t really matter – it’s a novel not a textbook – but reading State of Wonder you get the strong impression that, for Patchett, the world outside North America doesn’t really exist. It’s a fuzzy, malleable backdrop for the psychodramas of her American characters. Minnesota is real; Brazil is through the looking glass, or down the yellow brick road. The book might as well be set in outer space as the Amazon, and might be better if it were.
At one point Marina wonders ‘if what she was saying was racist or scientific’. It’s not clear why it has to be one or the other, but nothing in the novel is even halfway convincing as science (to take just one example: a drug company funding a lone field researcher who has yet to present any actual data isn’t going to be wondering how soon it can get FDA approval or fretting about the effect of her research on its share price). And for all Patchett’s attempts at cultural sensitivity, the depiction of the Lakashi – they chew bark while it’s still on the tree, have sex with one another indiscriminately, produce children well into their seventies, are in awe of the medical powers of the white people, poke and prod at strangers, can’t resist the urge to groom and braid any long hair that comes their way, and are functionally language-less, since none of the English-speakers can speak Lakashi – isn’t exactly not racist.
It’s odd that someone with so little apparent interest in the processes of drug development, international business, intellectual property rights, human reproduction, Amazonian ecosystems or Brazilian Indian village life should have written a novel with a plot that hangs on those things. The best scenes in the book are, at one extreme, the awkward conversation in Karen’s kitchen when Marina goes to break the news of Eckman’s death, and, at the other, a breathtaking fight in the jungle with an anaconda. Patchett is very good at domestic claustrophobia and what film censors like to call fantasy-horror violence, but there’s a lot of territory between the two.
As in Bel Canto, there’s surprisingly little conflict or even tension between the characters: considering the confined circumstances they find themselves in, everyone gets on with everyone else remarkably well. This is partly because they’re all in awe of the formidable Dr Swenson, but her charisma doesn’t emanate from the page: after her dramatic entrance at the opera house – which even merits an exclamation mark – she makes too many drawn out, tedious speeches to remain impressive for long.
Marina’s Amazonian adventure comes to an end when Mr Fox shows up, having not heard from Marina for weeks, and the plot takes a surprising, quasi-Christian turn: a kind of resurrection is made possible, but only through a kind of human sacrifice. The greatest threat to the Lakashi turns out to come not from loggers, dam-builders, the Brazilian government’s refusal to acknowledge them as the legal owners of their land, or even a predatory international pharmaceutical firm, but from the warlike tribe of ex-cannibals who live a couple of tributaries downriver. The blurb on the jacket makes a comparison with Heart of Darkness. Funny.