Summary Chapter 1
Bel Canto is set in the house of the vice president of an unnamed, impoverished country in South America. A large party is in progress, with guests from more than a dozen countries. The party is in honor of the fifty-third birthday of a Japanese businessman, Mr. Hosokawa, who is chairman of Nansei, a large electronics company in Japan. The government of the host country hopes that Mr. Katsumi Hosokawa will invest in their country and build a factory there that will boost the underdeveloped economy. However, Mr. Hosokawa has no intention of building a plant there. The only reason he is attending the party is to hear the great American opera star, the soprano Roxane Coss, perform. He has been an opera fan since he was a boy, and he adores Coss, having heard her sing on numerous occasions.
Roxane has just performed six arias, accompanied on the piano by a Swede named Christopf. The audience is applauding her when suddenly, all the lights go out. After a little while the lights come back on and a group of heavily armed terrorists burst into the room and take everyone hostage. There are three men, Generals Benjamin, Alfredo and Hector in charge of the invasion, and fifteen soldiers ranging from the age of fourteen to twenty. General Alfredo fires two rounds into the ceiling and calls for the attention of the guests. He asks President Masuda to step forward. There is no response. Then Vice President Ruben Iglesias steps forward and introduces himself. He says that the president was unable to attend the party. General Alfredo does not believe him and hits him across the cheek with the butt of his gun, knocking him to the ground. The general then instructs everyone else to lie on their backs on the floor. The terrorists go around the room, confiscating from the guests anything that might be used as a weapon.
General Benjamin asks Ruben Iglesias where the president is, and is told that he is at home watching his favorite soap opera. He had originally said he would attend the party but he changed his mind. General is disappointed that after five months of planning, they have failed in their objective of kidnapping the president. Now they are stuck with 222 hostages.
The country in which the novel is set will never be named, but the novel is based on a real event that began in December 1996, in Lima, the capital city of Peru, when fourteen members of the Tupac Amuru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) took hundreds of people hostage at a party at the Japanese Embassy. The crisis lasted four months before security forces stormed the building in April 1997. They freed all the hostages save one, who was killed. All the hostage takers were killed.
Another unmistakable clue that the setting is Peru is that the president is “a native of this country born of Japanese parents” (p. 10). His name is Eduardo Masuda. At the time of the Lima hostage-taking incident, the president of Peru was Alberto Fujimori, who was born of Japanese parents who immigrated to Peru in 1934. The pairing of a Spanish first name with a Japanese last name is the same as in the novel.
Interestingly, Patchett tells her reader outright on page 13 of this 300+ page novel that the terrorists will not survive.
The entrancing power of music is clearly going to be a theme, as Roxane Coss’s voice has an effect on everyone, even those who were not opera fans, who hated opera, or who had never heard it before. Indeed, those who had not liked opera before
“were the ones who wept openly now” after she has finished (p. 2).
Another theme that is apparent already is that Roxane, because of her voice, draws love toward her, from men. The accompanist kisses her after the performance and tries to protect her from the terrorists. It will later emerge that he is in love with her. Mr. Hosokawa is also in love with her voice and will eventually fall in love with her as a person. Roxane draws out these feelings in others not because of any personal qualities she may possess but simply because of the beauty of her singing. The power of music to elicit the finer feelings in human life is therefore already announced.
This opening chapter also illustrates Patchett’s technique in telling her tale. The plot develops somewhat slowly, with many pages given to the back story of the main characters. In the first chapter, for example, Mr. Hosokawa’s background is sketched, focusing on how he first began to love opera, and how he met his translator Gen.