Bel Canto : Theme
The Power ofMusic
Music, as personified in the operatic arias sung by Roxane Coss, has an almost magical power in Bel Canto. Her voice conveys such beauty and also intensity of emotion that it seems no one is immune to it. It is as if the music itself casts a romantic glow throughout the entire house, mitigating the effects of the harsh situation the hostages are in and allowing love and creativity to blossom. As is noted explicitly at the beginning of chapter 6, when Roxane receives the box of sheet music she requested, power passes completely from the generals to Roxane. Roxane’s demands, it should be noted, are always met, whereas the demands of the generals are never met. Even the generals are affected by the music. General Alfredo, after he hears Roxane sing “O mio babbino caro,” from an opera by Puccini, finds that “the music had confused him to the point of senselessness. He could not hold onto his convictions” (p. 153). All he can do is leave the room. Solo piano music, as played by Tetsuya Tako, has a similar effect. When he plays a Chopin Nocturne, for example, “From all over the house, terrorist and hostage alike turned and listened and felt a great easing in their chests” (p. 127). Music creates a spell, a kind of protective bubble in the house that softens hearts. After listening to the Chopin music, Carmen realizes that this “was the happiest time of her life and it was because of the music.” (p. 156). For Father Arguedas, after listening to Roxane sing, he is “too dizzy . . . to express himself properly” (p. 154). It is music that opens the pathways of love for Roxane and Mr. Hosokawa. They do not speak the same language but music is a universal language that allows them to communicate.
Because of the power of the music, and the romanticized atmosphere that it creates, time seems to stand still in the house where the hostages are held. Everyone’s normal routine stops and one day after another seems much the same. More than this, the militants reset the clocks “and no one knew a thing about time anymore” (p. 93). In a comic incident, General Alfredo shoots the clock on the mantel out of frustration with the bickering about which hostages should be released. Outside, the constant mist and drizzle known as garúa makes it impossible to know whether it is daylight or dusk. As a result, “The day no longer progressed in its normal, linear fashion but instead every hour circled back to its beginning, every moment was lived over and over again. Time, in the manner in which they had all understand it, was over” (p. 106). In one sense this is confusing for everyone, but another way of understanding it is that time and space become transformed (the latter through the magic of Roxane’s singing), allowing the hostages and some of the terrorists to enter a new, unfamiliar state of being in which their old lives—the lives they led before they were taken hostage—seem to fade away and they are able to think more deeply about themselves and their relationships with others.
On the face of it, one would not expect the lives of either the terrorists or the hostages to flourish during this long standoff at the vice presidential house. However, the opposite proves to be the case for members of both groups. Two of the young terrorists reveal talents that no one could have foreseen. Ishmael learns to play chess simply by observing the games between General Benjamin and Mr. Hosokawa, and Cesar reveals an astonishing talent for singing that impresses everyone, including Roxane. For these two young people, the situation in the house turns out to be an incubator for the flowering of creativity they did not know they had. Carmen, too, reveals a desire to improve herself and learn how to read and write. Of the captives, Gen and Mr. Hosokawa encounter new dimensions of themselves when they fall in love with Carmen and Roxane, respectively. Gen had always been good at finding the right words to translate the words of others, but now he discovers more about his own feelings, seemingly for the first time. Mr. Hosokawa too finds a new level of interiority that allows him to experience a deeper love, for Roxane, than he has known in his life before.
The political theme is mostly subordinate to the themes of music, love, and creativity. The militants have no backup plan for what to do if their mission, which was to kidnap the country’s president, fails. They make things up as they go along. The young terrorists are recruited from very poor backgrounds and told they will be fighting to free the people, although as Messner points out, that slogan is difficult to pin down. Eventually, the militants’ demands are treated by the author almost satirically. The more hopeless their situation grows, the longer the list of their demands, to include the release of all prisoners, not just political prisoners: “They remembered the car thieves they had known from boyhood, the petty robbers, men who stole chickens, a handful of drug traffickers who were not entirely bad sorts once you knew them” (p. 132). No analysis is given to the justice or otherwise of their cause. As Messner notes to Gen, the slogan of freeing the people is vague: “I never know exactly which people they mean or what it is they want to free them from” (p. 149). He adds that it is easier to negotiate with bank robbers, who only want the money.