Story Skeleton—Bel Canto

Narrative analysis and plot point summary of BEL CANTO by Anne Patchett

Story structure relates to the psychological appeal of narrative, that which engages readers and builds in them a sense of anticipation—a desire to know what happens next. This blog series is meant to demonstrate the universality of story structure with plot breakdowns of award-winning novels.

By Michelle Barker

Ann Patchett’s novel, Bel Canto, is a stunning achievement and a great example of how omniscient point of view can be used to serve the story.

The narrative centers on a hostage crisis that takes place in an unnamed Spanish-speaking country in South America, in the official residence of the country’s vice president—although, according to Wikipedia, the novel is based on the Lima Crisis of 1996/97. A world-famous soprano, Roxanne Coss, has been invited to sing at the fifty-third birthday celebration of a wealthy Japanese businessman, Mr. Hosokawa. The government hopes to convince Hosokawa to invest in the country, so they agree to host the performance, and nearly two hundred people attend, among them several ambassadors and investors from various countries. However, Hosokawa has no intention of building an electronics plant in South America. The only reason he’s here is because of his love of opera in general and Roxanne Coss in particular.

The terrorists show up hoping to capture the country’s president and take him hostage, but they discover, to their dismay, that the president canceled at the last minute. They end up holding the other guests hostage instead.

What ensues is a brilliant illustration of how both music and language can create bridges between people to foster understanding and erase differences. Patchett uses POV to transform antagonists into protagonists, but four main protagonists emerge: Gen Watanabe (the translator), Mr. Hosokawa, Carmen (one of the terrorists), and Roxanne Coss.

Inciting incident

Nailing down the inciting incident in this novel is a little tricky, partly because there are so many parallel trajectories—and that doesn’t even include the inciting incidents for each romantic thread. In the opening chapter there are a few contenders. The book opens with a big event literally in the first sentence: the lights in the vice president’s house go out at the end of one of Roxanne’s pieces, and the accompanist kisses her. This seems like an obvious choice for inciting incident, but I would argue that this is in fact the first of two doorways of no return, because it’s also the moment when the terrorists make their move.

Another contender for inciting incident is when Hosokawa first falls in love with opera. We get that backstory in the opening chapter: how, on his eleventh birthday, his father took him to see Rigoletto and it changed his life.  

But the first and most important inciting incident for many of the characters is the invitation to attend this birthday party to hear Roxanne Coss, Hosokawa’s idol, perform. The invitation is what brings all these people together, and it is what cements the terrorists’ plan to put pressure on the president to fulfill their demands. Without it, the story would not begin.

The second doorway of no return

So, the lights in the grand vice-presidential mansion suddenly go off, the accompanist kisses Roxanne Coss, and the terrorists burst in, armed and frightening, threatening violence. They’re looking for the president of the country who was supposed to attend this event. But the president cancelled at the last minute because it was a Tuesday, and his soap opera was on tv. This is the first in a series of humanizing moments, though the reader doesn’t recognize it as such quite yet. Right now, it only seems trivial and comical—but it has repercussions for the vice president who suffers a blow to the head at the hands of the angry terrorists.

It is at this stage that the terrorists could decide to leave. Without the president here, they realize they won’t get what they came for. They could slip out of the house and that would be the end of it. But they hesitate, and in that hesitation the small escape route closes to them. Sirens sound outside, and people with bullhorns shout orders. Now, if the terrorists leave the house, they will be arrested and imprisoned. There’s no choice: they must go through with their plan.

Patchett takes a moment to contrast the sound of the sirens with opera, violence with music. This is a motif that will echo throughout, and in fact music will succeed in transforming that violence into love.

But not yet.

At this point, the reader is afraid of the terrorists, much like the hostages, because we don’t know them. We see them only as their role; they don’t show any vulnerability, and there’s no way for us to recognize their humanity. Had government forces stormed the house right now and killed the terrorists, we would have cheered for the hostages’ release. Remember this; it will be important.

Rising action

The terrorists make everyone lie down on the floor, and slowly we get to know the hostages, thanks to Patchett’s choice of omniscient POV. One of the most important characters is Gen Watanabe, Hosokawa’s translator who speaks numerous languages fluently and forms an important bridge between the guests so that they can communicate with each other—and so that the terrorists’ demands can be clarified to everyone.

It soon becomes clear that the accompanist is sick and needs medical attention.

There is a knock at the front door, and Joachim Messner arrives. The hostage situation is his inciting incident. He is a negotiator with the International Red Cross who happens to be on vacation in this country and has been commandeered to bridge the gap between the world of the hostages and the outside world. In return for much needed supplies, he convinces the terrorists to let some of the hostages go; there are too many of them, and the situation is untenable. The terrorists agree to free the women and children (the vice president’s), the staff, and anyone who’s sick or not useful to them.

But of course, there is one woman in the crowd who is extremely valuable to them: Roxanne Coss. They do not agree to free her. Patchett brings more to this than just Roxanne’s value as a trading chip. While the terrorists were hiding in the air conditioning shafts waiting to make their move, they heard Roxanne sing and were entranced. Part of the reason they don’t want to give her up is because they don’t want to lose the beauty of her voice. The terrorists decide to keep something “they never knew they wanted.”

They keep forty people in total. Because Roxanne Coss stays, the accompanist refuses to leave, even though he’s clearly getting sicker and soon falls into a coma. No one knows what’s wrong with him until he dies, and then they realize he was a diabetic and needed insulin. 

Slowly, the story splits into various trajectories and differing narrative goals.

Father Arguedas, a young Catholic priest who is invited to leave with the exodus of hostages, chooses to stay. He forms a different sort of bridge between the characters, offering spiritual solace and connection in his role as priest. The process of humanizing the terrorists begins with him, as he notices how young some of them are—just boys, really. And, as it turns out, a few girls as well. He sees that the young terrorists are tired and scared, and he calls over one of the boys who starts to cry.

They are also humanized through Gen’s translations between the generals and Messner. This group of terrorists does not belong to the other extremist group in the country; they haven’t shot anyone. What they’re doing here is “for the people.” Because of Patchett’s choice of omniscient narration, we find out that one of the generals grieves the death of the accompanist and thinks of his brother who has been wrongfully imprisoned and who the general hopes to free through this hostage situation. This furthers the humanization of the people in charge.

A transformation starts to happen in the house as Father Arguedas administers last rites to the accompanist and asks if anyone wants to make a confession. The vice president resumes his role of host, cleaning up and making the rounds of guests to enquire if people are comfortable or if they need anything.

Outside, a drizzly fog descends like a shroud, enclosing the house in its own microcosm. One of the generals shoots the clock, stopping time. What is created is not only a classic closed-room situation but also a fairy-tale feeling of being outside of both time and place. The terrorists’ initial rules fall apart as the divisions between the two groups fade. The vice president develops a fondness for one of the young terrorists, Ishmael, who could easily be his son and offers him a new pair of boots. And then the French ambassador, Simon Thibault, turns on the television. Many of the terrorists who’ve spent their lives in the jungle have never seen a television. They’re entranced.

Someone finds a chess set, and one of the generals begins playing with the hostages. Ishmael watches and catches on quickly. It turns out another terrorist, a young boy named Cesar, can sing. Gen is commandeered by the generals to be their secretary, outlining their demands—although they are fascinated by his facility with languages.

Mr. Hosokawa spends most of his time at the piano with Roxanne and a Japanese hostage who turns out to be a talented piano player (a lot of hidden talents emerge over the course of the story). This return to music is what brings Hosokawa and Roxanne together. They begin to communicate in wordless ways, no longer needing Gen’s translations.

Midpoint reversal

There is definitely a narrator in this novel apart from the various viewpoints we are privy to, and this voice occasionally interrupts the story with commentary.

At the midpoint, the narrator steps in to tell us there is a clear division in the story: before the box and after the box—the box in question being full of music that Father Arguedas organizes for Roxanne Coss. The box changes the whole mood in the house, because now Roxanne can practice, and a daily session of beautiful music is introduced into the routine. Language created bridges between people who couldn’t otherwise communicate, but it is the music that truly brings everyone together. Carmen is especially transfixed by it, and for her it is the inciting incident for a romantic subplot: she is empowered to instigate a relationship with Gen. She is very shy, but the music gives her the courage to approach him in the middle of the night and ask him to teach her to read and write in Spanish.

The bridges solidify into a false victory

Over four months of captivity, the barriers between terrorists and hostages come down. The various relationships that form each come with their own inciting incidents and arcs, which I’ll tease apart in a moment, but they all arrive at a point of false victory.

Gen and Carmen fall in love. Ishmael learns to play chess, and the vice president imagines adopting him into his family. Cesar’s talent for singing is so prodigious that Roxanne takes him under her wing and gives him lessons, imagining the success he would have if she took him with her to Italy. Roxanne and Mr. Hosokawa fall in love.

The generals’ demands to Messner become increasingly outlandish. They don’t want to leave the house. No one really does, apart from the French ambassador who misses his wife. But even he gets into the rhythm of life in the house as he spends his time in the kitchen preparing the meals.

When the fog lifts and the generals finally allow everyone outside into the yard, there are contradictory forces at work here: the transformation of this microcosm feels complete. A regular soccer game starts up. A group of joggers do laps around the house. The vice president works in his garden. But the lifting of the fog also reveals the outside world that has been hidden. It’s another reminder that this can’t end well.

But by this point, the reader has fallen under the story’s spell. The terrorists are no longer antagonists. They are people, and we love them as much as the hostages do. Some reviewers have called this a dramatization of the Stockholm syndrome, but I think Patchett is doing something more interesting than that. The hostages (and readers) don’t develop a psychological dependence as a form of survival. They actually come to care for each other as people, just as the reader does.

When Messner shows up again to warn the terrorists (and us) that this can’t go on and they must surrender, this must end and it won’t end well, no one listens to him (not even us).

The shocking (tragic) climax

We’ve been warned numerous times and yet, when government forces storm the house and kill all the terrorists, the violence is utterly shocking and devastating. Patchett’s transformation of these characters is brilliant. A novel that started with violence has become a world in which violence is no longer appropriate. The people who are killed are no longer terrorists. They are humans, with names and desires and talents, and we love them as much as the hostages do. Like the hostages, we are hoping for a fairy-tale ending, but this is not a fairy tale.

Mr. Hosokawa also dies in the shoot-out, in his attempt to protect Carmen from being killed. In a great irony, the hostages get what they wanted in the first place—freedom—but it is no longer what they need. The novel ends in tragedy.

Denouement

Patchett includes an epilogue in which, six months later, Gen and Roxanne are married. The two people they loved were both killed, so they turn to each other. I admit, I did not find this epilogue either necessary or satisfying (or convincing). I suppose it was their way of holding onto what they’d had, but it feels tacked on to an otherwise perfect story.

The use of the omniscient point of view

What Patchett does with point of view is critical to understanding the story because readers must get to know as many of these characters as possible. Getting to know them is the point. The goal of this process is humanization, which is what makes the climax of the novel so effective.  

Patchett could have used rotating deep third to achieve her goal, but she chooses omniscient because, apart from the various viewpoints we are privy to, there is also a narrator who occasionally steps in with comments from outside the story, providing a bird’s eye view after the fact—something deep third cannot do. The narrator also occasionally slips in an “us.” Patchett includes and implicates the reader in this self-contained world. We are there with the hostages. We, too, have our prejudices and assumptions challenged by this situation. We, too, fall prey to the crazy dreams that ensue—that the vice president can adopt Ishmael, and Cesar will sing in Italy with Roxanne, and Gen and Carmen can get married.

But the movement from one character’s POV to another within a scene also becomes thematic because it contributes to a feeling of connection and community among people who otherwise would never be in the same room together.

All those arcs

Patchett gives us insight into many characters, which contributes to both reader immersion (we feel like we’re in the house with them) and emotional draw (we get to know them, so we start to care about them). This is not to say that every novel would benefit from this kind of treatment. This novel benefits from it precisely because it contributes to the theme.

Let’s dive into some of the arcs:

Mr. Hosokawa: A successful businessman in a solid marriage with two children who is, in fact, mostly married to his job. The one passion in his life is opera, but he doesn’t discover true passion until he meets Roxanne Coss in person and falls in love with her. His first face-to-face communication with her (the inciting incident of their relationship arc) happens after the accompanist dies and he offers his condolences. At first, he must rely on Gen’s translations to communicate with her, but as he gets to know her more deeply, words become unnecessary. Roxanne is the one who initiates the physical consummation of their relationship by inviting him to sneak up to her room, which Carmen must facilitate at great risk to herself. Mr. Hosokawa dies trying to protect Carmen when the government forces arrive.

Roxanne Coss: Before the hostage crisis, Roxanne Coss was a diva. She continues to act like one when the terrorists are deciding who stays in the house and who goes. She has performances lined up. She shouldn’t be treated this way. When the accompanist dies, she realizes she never thought much about him at all. Mr. Hosokawa’s sincere offer of sympathy is the first step in softening her heart and making her look outward at people as people (rather than just as adoring fans), though she never really stops being a diva during captivity. After a short stint of sleeping on the floor, she gets her own bedroom and breakfast in bed, and once the box of music arrives, the house routine revolves around her. But, over time, she forms an attachment to Carmen and allows her to lie on the bed with her as she braids Carmen’s hair. She sees Carmen as a person. When Cesar fears he has embarrassed himself by singing and runs outside to hide in a tree, Roxanne insists on going out to talk him down. This initiates movement into the outside world, as now all the hostages are allowed outside. Roxanne ends up marrying Gen as a way of remembering Mr. Hosokawa.

Gen Watanabe and Carmen: Gen is the translator who helps other people communicate, but he himself is shy and hesitant to reveal his true thoughts and feelings. When Carmen approaches him in the middle of the night with a request to learn how to read and write in Spanish, his defenses come down. She is a quick learner and embraces the lessons, and the two of them fall in love. Carmen’s inciting incident is when she hears Roxanne Coss sing while she’s hiding in the air-conditioning shaft. This creates a connection between her and Roxanne. Carmen starts to think of herself as Roxanne’s bodyguard. She becomes enthralled with Gen and his facility with languages and, in the middle of the night, works up the courage to ask him to teach her. They fall in love, their relationship accelerated by the prospect of the hostage crisis ending. The night Carmen leads Mr. Hosokawa up to Roxanne’s room is the same night she and Gen consummate their relationship. Despite the unrealistic situation, Gen and Carmen hold onto the fiction that their relationship might survive this ordeal, though the narrator reminds us this outcome is unlikely. Gen believes that even if the government forces arrive, they will spare Carmen. But they don’t.

Ruben Iglesias: the vice president of the country, a man who comes from poverty and recognizes that no one really knows or cares who he is. As a political figure he represents the “common man.” President Masuda has always treated him as an underling. He is the only hostage who meets with violence at the hands of the terrorists. When Esmerelda, the governess and a simple country girl, sews up his cut, he is reminded of his connection to the common people. He continues to think of the people in his home as guests (including the terrorists) and remains the host of the home, tending to everyone’s needs and cleaning up after them. When he sees Ishmael’s worn boots, he offers him new shoes and a connection is formed that develops over time into a parental bond. He decides he will speak to his wife about adopting Ishmael into their family—but then the reality of the situation comes crashing in and Ishmael is killed along with the other terrorists.

These are only a smattering of the arcs Patchett juggles in this novel. She gives consideration to even the most minor characters, humanizing everyone.

Conclusion

Patchett’s achievement in this novel is really quite wonderful. Her ability to fully transform the antagonists and remind us of their humanity makes me think this book should be required reading for, well, everyone. It reminds us that people are not their roles and that we are all fundamentally alike. She chooses a cosmopolitan cast of characters for that very reason. She also writes about something that is very hard to make interesting: the triumph of goodness over evil. Her tricks: the use of tension, and the transformation of character.


Michelle Barker, senior editor and award-winning novelist

Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet. Her most recent publication, co-authored with David Brown, is Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in literary reviews worldwide. She has published three YA novels (one fantasy and two historical fiction), a historical picture book, and a chapbook of poetry. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). Many of the writers she’s worked with have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.

Immersion & Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling

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