Bel Canto Themes Essay

A Theme of the Opera in Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

645 WordsFeb 4th, 20183 Pages

Patchett fantastically utilizes the language and the pathos of music for the examination of jungle born revolutionaries and the international hostages. This novel reflects our extraordinary aptitude to structure emotional associations in improbable and shaky ways. Manette Ansay, author of Midnight Champagne says: "Let me put this plainly: Ann Patchett has written the best book I have read in a long, long time. Bel Canto is a masterpiece to its title, a beautiful song, and a broad, bold entirely original love story destined to become an international classic. This is the book we all wait for, the one we thrust into the hands of friends, saying, 'You've got to read this! You've got to read this now!'" According to The New York Times Book Review: "Expect miracles when you read Ann Patchett’s fiction." The plot captures the attention right from the opening. The action begins with the very first sentence of the novel as the lights drop out during a party at the mansion of the vice president of a poor revolution-torn South American country and suddenly a band of terrorists flood in the room from the upstairs, from behind curtains, through the doors, and even from inside the heating vents. Terrorists were aimed at kidnapping the country's president, but their ambition and the whole strategy is hindered when they discovered that he was not among the guests. The…

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This essay analyses Ann Patchett’s novel Bel Canto (2001), discussing the relationship of literature and music in terms of the novel’s politics of representation. Patchett’s novel is characterised by a web of binary constructions built on otherness, both on the levels of content and form. The novel deals with a hostage-taking revolving around a fictional world-famous opera singer and an international group of businessmen and diplomats. The romanticised terrorist plot becomes the basis of a contradictory discourse in which music is represented as a utopian tool, a panacea for problems of globalisation and worlding. Published just before 9/11, Bel Canto’s neo-imperialist assumptions of a rigid hierarchy of high western culture as opposed to a reign of chaos in the periphery reflect an outdated world picture in which music plays a rather problematic key role. My analysis links the escapist aesthetics of the novel to theories of alterity and representation, enquiring into the negotiation of modernity and conservatism in fictional representations of music.


Art is not sin. It is not
always good. But it is not a
sin. (Patchett, 2001, 52)

This essay proposes to analyse the intersection between the arts at play in a fictional text dealing with music. The alterity of the arts examined, literature and music, not only leads to a rethinking and redrawing of the boundaries between them but more generally enquires into the status and function of art in everyday life and the power of art in confronting a multicultural globalised world [1]. In Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto this world is represented by terrorist violence.

Set in an unnamed South American country, the novel opens on an elaborate birthday concert organised for a Japanese tycoon, Mr. Katsumi Hosokawa, which is interrupted by a terrorist attack. When the insurgents realise they have failed to kidnap the president of the country, who was supposed to attend but cancelled at the last minute, they take a group of guests hostage, in order to extort the release of political prisoners. During the months of the hold-up, affiliations and collaborative routines form between the aggressors and their victims, designed to draw readers into wishing for a continuation rather than the violent end which is foreshadowed early on in the narrative: ‘It was the unspoken belief with everyone who was familiar with this organization that they were all as good as dead, when in fact it was the terrorists who would not survive the ordeal’ (Patchett, 2001, 13).

What moves this captivity narrative beyond a somewhat melodramatic illustration of the media-effective form of trauma bonding known as the Stockholm syndrome is the metafictional way in which music is woven into the narrative. Mr. Hosokawa, whose greatest weakness is known to be opera, has been lured to South America by siren song, drawn by the promise to hear an American soprano by the name of Roxane Coss, who is flown in at considerable cost to help induce Hosokawa to build a factory and thereby boost the country’s economy [2]. Her performance is overheard by the terrorists who are thereby turned into opera aficionados:

There were worse reasons to keep a person hostage. […] The terrorists, having no chance to get what they came for, decided to take something else instead, something that they never in their lives knew that they wanted until they crouched in the low, dark shaft of the air-conditioning vents: opera. (Patchett, 2001, 71)

The power of opera constructed by the novel and centred in the character of Roxane Coss, to emotionally address people of all national, cultural, educational and political backgrounds, introduces a unique, though unrealistic, dimension that clashes with the topical power theme circumscribed by the hostage-taking. From the beginning music is introduced as the art which has brought the international dramatis personae together and which gradually proceeds to knit the terrorists and their hostages into a community. It represents the main ‘human interest angle’ (Patchett, 2001, 7) in the character of Mr Hosokawa, who believes that ‘true life [is] stored in music’ (Patchett, 2001, 5). Music is functionalised to create an aesthetic escape from adversity where actual physical escape is impossible. However, as indicated by the image of siren song, in doing so, music becomes an accomplice of terrorism in taking over the terrorists’ power over the interned community. And it is the narrated version of music, the sounds evoked by words describing unheard music, which colonises readers into fellow-captives unwilling to address questions of right and wrong, or even of the logic of the taking of hostages to free prisoners, not to mention the absurdity of ‘taking’ such a ‘thing’ as opera.

Comparisons between literature and music have recently become quite a vibrant subject of interdisciplinary and intermedial studies, despite the fact that ‘[w]riting (and speaking) about music seems completely inadequate, given the nonrepresentational character of music’ [3]. The relationship between music and literature has been described in many ways, some more clichéd than others (for example in terms of the ‘sister arts’, or marriage, see Rupp 2005), but the abundance of aesthetic decorations on the surface of novels on music often distracts from the fact that the arts are after all also locked in a power relationship. Different patterns are at hand for representing the topic of music on the page of a fictional text. At its simplest, in terms of formal requirements, a text can feature a set of characters who are either creators or consumers of music and put discussions about musical pieces or styles into their mouths, thus composing an interweaving structure which exploits the parallels between the plot-line and themes and motifs present in, say, song lyrics, libretti, musical titles and so on. Music thus ends up being a motif, guaranteeing a readership of music-lovers who enjoy a reflection of familiar, recognisable issues important to their lives on the pages of a text which they can read as a roman à clef.

To confront the relationship of literature and music is to confront the principles of comparison in general and the question of how to deal with binarisms. In identifying thinking in terms of binary oppositions as an outdated strategy of simplification, I am (as discussed at greater length in Alexander (2006). All of these point to the view that the simplifications of binarisms are no longer adequate conceptual tools. In a multicultural, globalised, hyphenated and increasingly dynamic world, they seem to offer the false comfort of an order which is no longer operative. But even this statement itself frames an idea by using a binary opposition, and hence it is probably more influenced by developments in postcolonial theory, transcultural theories and border discourses appropriate to use binary and (to appropriate a mathematical term) ‘fuzzy’ models additively, or possibly, in a dialectic way.

Polyphonic Mediations: The Alterity of Music and Language

Patchett’s novel is something of a treasure trove of dichotomies, many of which are reinforced by stereotypes. The contrast between the two unlikely central themes, music and terrorism is continued in juxtapositions of Art and Life, high and low culture, men and women (two of the terrorists turn out to be teenage girls), young and old generations and most importantly, in the interdependence of music and language.

Over the space of 300 pages, or four and a half months of narrated time, the lines dividing oppressors and oppressed gradually dissolve, as relationships begin to grow across the divides: one of the teenage terrorists turns out to have an unexpected talent for singing, making him into Roxane Coss’s trainee, and Gen becomes involved in a love affair with one of the two female members of the terrorist gang, Carmen. In addition to falling in love with his fellow-hostage, Roxane Coss, Mr. Hosokawa becomes the pet chess opponent of the chief of the captors. Other partnerships and friendships linking the tellingly labelled ‘tribe of the hostages’ with the other ‘tribe’ blossom, too, ear-marked by national stereotypes, creating and subsequently deconstructing a good savage/bad savage dichotomy reminiscent of Michael Taussig’s Janus-image (Patchett, 2001, 294).

The use of one art in an attempt to depict another as exemplified by Ann Patchett’s novel can also give insights into constructions of otherness and othering processes. Paradoxically it is the difference between the arts which points to their commonalities, for instance in relation to how any mimetic process must necessarily be incomplete, how realism is constructed, and how the shortcomings of one art form creates space and need for another.

Given these conditions, to conceptualise the relationship between literature and music in terms of otherness is in itself not unproblematic. By choosing to make her protagonist a singer rather than an instrumental artist, Patchett introduces speech and melody as collaborative parts of an artistic whole, yet she disrupts this unity by specifying, at great length and in innumerable variations, that the musical side is universally accessible, whereas the speech aspect requires clumsy and time-consuming acts of translation.

With regard to time, too, music obscures transactions. In order for Roxane to sing as professionally as she does, and to mediate music at the high standard which she commands, years of training are required. The immediacy of her music’s appeal is therefore part of a construction. As for her daily singing practice which her co-hostages witness and claim to enjoy, this is an example of the novel’s euphemising and occasionally humorist stance based on convictions such as: ‘Maybe there would be a bad outcome for some of the others, but no one was going to shoot a soprano’ (Patchett, 2001, 33). Practicing scales in a group of trapped people would have to appear as an invitation to a frenzied attack, especially if the kidnappers’ frustrated aggression has already led to such irrational acts as shooting the clock on the mantel, a highly symbolic act of destruction, if one believes, with Andy Hamilton, that music is ‘an art of time’ (Hamilton, 2007, 120).

While the intersections and interactions of two art forms such as literature and music are a far cry from confrontations between coloniser and colonised, the latter may illustrate some of the workings of alterity which are present in the former, though in a different style and based on quite different political and cultural premises. While omnipresent in any cultural discourse and necessary to dialogue of any sort, otherness (a term I use interchangeably with ‘alterity’) confronts any artist or critic with a paradoxical task, as many postcolonial theorists have outlined. According to Abdul JanMohamed:

[g]enuine and thorough comprehension of Otherness is possible only if the self can somehow negate or at least severely bracket the values, assumptions, and ideology of his culture. (JanMohamed, 1985, 18)

JanMohamed raises these points in a discussion of colonialist literature, which is not as remote from Bel Canto as it would seem, or, given the publication year of 2001, one would hope for. As Jane Marcus-Delgado has argued in a very persuasive essay, Patchett’s novel is a neo-imperialist endeavour: it extols western art over other, necessarily ‘lesser’ forms and uses national as well as other stereotypes unapologetically and with little apparent sense of irony. The portrayal of the Latin American terrorists is full of clichés that perpetuate a black-and-white image of the world. Marcus-Delgado argues that the novel:

ultimately reinforces the age-old stereotypes of the good, innocent European/Americans versus the bad, unwashed Primitives, saviors versus sinners, and the triumph of civilization over barbarism. (Delgado, 2005, 48).

The return of the imperial vision expressed in the novel seems anachronistic. In recent discourse, both literary and critical, the focus seems to have shifted away from the contrasts and conflicts early postcolonial critics confronted and lampooned in their writings, for instance, by exposing the institutional racism and bias of colonialist novels. It seems that the softer grey tones of hybridity and syncretism dominate recent discourses. The world, after all, is no longer black and white, or must no longer be depicted as such. Diplomacy and political correctness are the order of the day and set the standards of how to speak about cultural difference, but only in some circles. Patchett’s novel is not an intellectual tour de force; rather, reviewers have identified the novel as a light summer read which combines elements of a crime novel or thriller with romance and a bite-size amount of high culture. It seems to offer high culture at a low price: readers can enjoy opera vicariously; they are offered a sampler of entertainment items which gives them a break from challenges of any description. Hailed as a ‘comedy of manners’, Patchett’s appropriation of the Latin American news story has received prizes both in Britain and America (the Orange Prize for Fiction 2002 as well as the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award) (Maslin, 2001). Criticisms are largely restricted to the observation that her South American terrorists are written rather less convincingly than her Western subjects, for example in the New York Times review by James Polk (2001).

The binarism between music and language underlines the novel’s veiling of power relations. Music penetrates into every corner of the house and is even audible in the streets surrounding it, whereas verbal semantics is available only through the bottleneck of the single interpreter. Mr. Hosokawa is wholly dependent on his polyglot interpreter, Gen Watanabe, to translate the world around him. The terrorists speak Quechua and Spanish. The group of hostages, having been assembled from a class of diplomats, politicians and multinational CEOs, is multilingual: the 58 remaining hostages fall into French, Russian, German, Italian and Japanese speaking groups between whom Gen mediates, in addition to serving as a translator for Mr Hosokawa and the terrorists, who appoint him to act as their secretary and universal trouble-shooter. The celebrated singer is American and understands only English, though she sings in any number of languages, which makes her a singular kind of mediator: she communicates feeling, not semantics, and her singing practise generates a global, universal sense of understanding which encompasses not only the terrorists and hostages but also the rest of humanity, as she is a world-famous star who is vicariously present in many households through her numerous recordings, and whose fate is the main anchor of public interest and sympathy throughout the story. The only satellite able to penetrate the boundaries separating the hostages from the world around them is the Swiss Red Cross worker Joachim Messner, whose flexibility is stressed by the fact that he can shift between a number of languages.

Language and communication are thus among the novel’s central concerns; though overshadowed by the power of music, language and acts of translation turn out to be the most frequently occurring practical leitmotifs of the novel [4]. Constant reminders of acts of translation also underline that the narrative itself is an act of translation, of describing a musical experience by naming certain arias or phrases.

While language, like the terrorists, has the power to divide, music has the opposite effect, it evens out differences between the two groups portrayed and assumes an overall linking function. The surface harmony, however, has a more sinister aspect of obscuring power relations. This can be seen in the kind of leadership or spokespersonship which Roxane Coss assumes. The texts she sings are not written by herself but a performance of other people’s thoughts, so in a sense Roxane is a puppet. At the same time, it is quite clear that the words she sings are of no great significance. Form triumphs over matter. Thus music becomes a structuring device even in practical terms: when Roxane has a box of sheet music delivered to practise with, this event becomes a landmark of power passing from the terrorists to the musician:

  Years later when this period of internment was remembered by the people who were actually there, they saw it in two distinct periods: before the box and after the box.
Before the box, the terrorists controlled the Vice President’s home. […] But after Messner brought the box into the house everything changed. The terrorists continued to block the doors and carry guns, but now Roxane Coss was in charge. (Patchett, 2001, 162)

Within the book’s operatic parlance, this box acts like a deus ex machina, a magic solution, and the treasure contained in it is not music itself but a written map or recipe from which the music is generated. Music thus supersedes the power of the word, deposing it from its meaning-giving place of prominence. What seems to be cooperation is actually an uneven partnership where text is taken out of context and morphs into a subservient tool. It obscures sources of the actual semantic content, fragments, out of context. Music decontextualises intertexts, turns them into gibberish, peculiar for the lack of links and the formal logic and aesthetic beauty of the music absolves Roxane from actually saying anything. In this sense Patchett’s novel actually reimagines Friedrich Nietzsche’s conceptualisation of the Dionysian dimension of music [5]. When the musician takes over power, the logic of words and reasoning must yield its place to sentiment.

Novels which deal with music seem to stress that the two arts have a great deal in common and can co-operate in creating an artistic effect. At the same time, this collaboration rests on the essential differences between the arts and thus problematises limits and boundaries of each respective art form and the space of overlap that they share.

Music and Development

Despite a great deal of innovative thinking about the collaborations and blendings of different art forms, both fictional works depicting musical themes and the discourses dealing with them are often characterised by a somewhat nostalgic conservative streak. Nostalgia is largely a matter of sentiment; conservatism, however is more problematic as it implies a rigidity of thought and a willingness to let the past govern the present and future. For one thing, literary texts dealing with such themes as the representation of music in literature tend to reinscribe binary oppositions of high and low culture as rather separate areas of cultural production. To cite a few examples from the 1990s, Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (1995) deals with rock music; Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music(1994) focuses on classical western music, Amit Chaudhuri’s Afternoon Raag (1993) incorporates the study of classical Indian raag music, Bernard MacLaverty’s Grace Notes (1997) revolves around a composer writing modern classical music. Neatly compartmentalised according to taste, these novels address themselves to readers with an interest in specific styles of music and reaffirm the familiar. While some groups of readers may relish the opportunity to recognise allusions to Elvis Costello or to use their knowledge of song lyrics as a subtext/commentary on the plot, another ‘class’ of customers will be attracted to narrative comparisons of string quartets by Joseph Haydn or stylistic influences from Benjamin Britten. As with novels rewriting previously explored themes or materials, the possibility for readers to recognise cultural elements and the invitation to readerly collaboration in decoding links to extra-literary reality are a large part of the attraction of books about music: they become intermedial comfort zones with the music depicted acting as an aid to identification. Obviously, this can also be turned into a clever selling strategy as exemplified by the CD containing recordings discussed in (economist) Vikram Seth’s novel An Equal Music. This places them in a curious position in so far as they function like intermedial forms of fan fiction, dependent spin-offs which retain a strong connection to the past.

Recently, the seeming paradox of shuffling between clearly segregated selves and others is increasingly conceptualised in terms of flexible boundaries and dynamic processual readings of the interaction between identity and alterity. The overlapping zone is the most vibrant space of cultural exchange, or change of any description, which is increasingly seen as a constructive, positive place, rather than the conflictual obstacle course early critics assumed [6].

Within the group of texts mentioned, the generic pattern most frequently employed is some variation or other of the bildungsroman, or specifically, the variation known askünstlerroman or artist’s novel [7]. The stories revolve around a protagonist who defines him- or herself largely in relation to a particular art form, and in the process questions western and other notions of development, progress, social assimilation as well as the status of the arts and artists. In the selection of novels mentioned above, Hornby’s protagonist subverts the genre by depicting a protagonist in his mid-thirties stuck in post-adolescent limbo who uses rock music as a surrogate expression of a life characterised by lists rather than purpose; Seth’s love story of a high-strung violinist transfixed by an unhappy love relationship has parallels to this, whereas Chaudhuri’s novel attempts an intermedial recreation of Indian music in the English language, focussing on a male graduate student from India living in Oxford. MacLaverty’s protagonist is a young woman whose developments as a composer are a negotiation of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, intertwined with conflicts with her parents, religion and postnatal depression. Whether subverted, experimented with or turned into a critique of the genre, these variations of the bildungsroman negotiate alterity on several different levels (individual-society, art-life, normal-extraordinary) and in the process raise questions about the purpose and potential of artistic representation.

Bel Canto by contrast is an artist’s novel, but without the development aspects which are characteristic of the bildungsroman. In fact, development of any description is conspicuously absent from the narrative. Despite her divine singing, Roxane Coss is essentially a rather flat character, in that there is not much development possible for a character who is represented as a paragon of perfection from the first lines of the novel onwards. She represents an ideal, but one that does not really grow. Even as she ends up getting married to Gen, who supposedly is the narrative instance relating their months of captivity, she never quite materialises as a real character. Even as she begins to wear ordinary clothes and eventually embarks on an affair with Mr. Hosokawa, the narrative voice keeps observing on how extraordinary and charismatic she is, and thus every mention of her carries an undertone of wonderment and underlines distance rather than approximation.

As for Roxane’s audience, their development is restricted to a growing appreciation and knowledge of music; other than that, they experience a form of negative evolution. From the first pages onwards, the hostage-taking turns the hostages into dependents, leaving the disgruntled terrorists in a position of child-minders: ‘The hostages had needs and complaints. They took on the weight of a roomful of restless children all needing to be shushed and petted and entertained’ (Patchett, 2001, 98). Like children, colonised or other disenfranchised individuals, they are deprived of self-responsibility, and most of them actually experience relief at this reduction of their power. Their regression into disempowerment is variously depicted as a return to childhood and a return to an animal-like status:

everyone on the floor felt better. They could no longer plot to overpower a terrorist or consider a desperate run at the door. They were considerably less likely to be accused of doing something they did not do. They were like small dogs trying to avoid a fight, their necks and bellies turned wilfully towards sharp teeth, take me (Patchett, 2001, 20/21)

The community of terrorists and hostages is indeed depicted as dependent on the outside world as a group of children on their parents, or a band of animals on their keepers (Patchett, 2001, 301-303). Whatever precarious culture they have developed (as pointed out in a review by Janet Maslin (2001) is ultimately achieved by processes of negative evolution, of forgetting, suppression, unlearning and regression. Gen, the self-effacing translator who is a genius at making himself into a tool rather than an individual unsurprisingly epitomises this reversal:

Gen was born to learn. But these last months had turned him around and now Gen saw there could be as much virtue in letting go of what you knew as there had ever been in gathering new information. He worked as hard at forgetting as he had ever worked to learn.’ (Patchett, 2001, 304)

Other characters are unaware of their regression. While music provides some form of uplift, it however cancels out thought and enslaves the inmates of the presidential palace mentally and emotionally, to complement their physical imprisonment.

Conclusions: Trivial Pursuits and Escapes

According to Patchett’s novel, borders between countries, arts and people have almost acquired the status of a comfort zone, a utopian space policed by unseen and intangible and faceless forces: while her terrorists may seem to pull the strings, if only by threatening to pull the triggers on their numerous guns, they are in the same boat as the hostages, since they ‘had not come up with a way to leave’ (304/5). They are in fact the hostages of the invisible and nameless state forces who finally kill them, an act which does not come across as a long-awaited liberation but an imperialist murder of a precarious, rare and unique form of civilisation.

The irony of the situation is mapped by the novel’s use of the word ‘escape’. Numerous characters fleetingly consider their possibilities to escape from the mansion, discarding all of them with the most spurious of pretexts, and indeed, to stay in the timeless bubble of the hostage tie-in constitutes the most complete form of escapism imaginable, a retreat from the constraints of adulthood and leadership, self-responsibility and social demands, and an overall regression excused by a violence which has long lost its threatening potential and is symbolically reduced to defeat in chess or soccer and other games. Captivity frees the hostages from their customary freedom, and music collaborates with imprisonment in offering an aesthetic form captivity that glosses over the disempowerment aspects.

Published in the summer before 9/11, Patchett’s Bel Canto represents some kind of last-minute view on western imperialism as an intact, invincible force, if not of nature, then certainly of culture. Terrorism as tamed by singing is not a motif which an author could or even should get away with in the post-9/11 climate, and this is where the ethical question raised by the epigraph comes back into my argument. On one level, Patchett’s novel is rather insensitive to present-day discourses on cultural contact and conflict, postcolonial developments, discourses of western hegemony and many other current concerns in and beyond the arts. At the same time it demonstrates a retreat from realism into an almost atavistic use of art as an escape route which can be found even in politically more conscious recent novels such as Ian McEwan’s Saturday. My observations on the function of music in this novel are part of an incipient enquiry into a symptomatic use of art as an escapist tool in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This strategy may be an attempt to challenge the validity, and possibly the limits of (western, Eurocentric) paradigms of freedom of speech and the fool’s licence of the arts. This is the context in which I situate Patchett’s representation of music as a structuring device, but one which is restricted to a stage-like microcosm of its own narcissistic creation. Music in Bel Canto creates an illusion of order, structure and even cultural improvement, but essentially expresses a search for role models. As Timothy Taylor has argued, the art style of Bel Canto is at home in the eighteenth-century, and thus coincides with the formation of colonialist discourses, which may or may not be related to the novel’s reproduction of stereotypes reminiscent of colonialism. What is certainly relevant to my analysis is an element of anachronism and a backward-glancing search for stability and a reliable concept of culture.

This artistically and politically motivated search does not merely involve music but crucially seeks to resituate literature itself. This becomes evident in the novel’s mise-en-abyme of a narrative surrounding the significance of a book [8]. Round about the middle of the novel, Gen is recruited by one of the Russian hostages by the name of Fyodorov to interpret his declaration of love to Roxane Coss. The declaration is prefaced, or rather, turns into an hour-long reflection on Fyodorov’s appreciation of art and beauty. It culminates in his revelations about a valuable book containing reproductions of impressionist art works which his grandmother owned and periodically showed to her grandchildren, exhorting them to observe strict rituals of cleansing and care in handling the book before they had a chance to view the pictures and hear varying ekphrastic stories about their background.

In this vignette on the meaning of art as an education in aesthetic appreciation Fyodorov needs to return to his childhood to find an experience of undisturbed, focussed appreciation of any kind of art. Not only do the paintings in the book date from the past, but his own personal past is the location of artistic appreciation. This provides a rationale for the backwardness of development discussed above, in that the period of imprisonment occasioned by the hostage-taking functions as a retreat from the pressures of modernity and a reduction of sensory impressions with the opportunity to actually fully appreciate the ones that are provided. Clearly the absence of freedom and its discontents is evaluated as a gain, if only a temporary one.

This view is compounded by the novel’s juxtaposition of this example of high art and culture with a metafictional thematisation of more trivial entertainment forms. The word ‘trivial’ derives from the medieval classification of the arts, denoting the first – and lesser — three of the seven liberal arts, grammar, rhetoric, and logic, music belonging to the quadrivium. The term incorporates the notion of a cross-roads – again, a metafictional one which questions the boundary separating the real from the imagined [9].

The only reason for President Masuda to cancel his participation in Mr Hosokawa’s birthday concert was his unwillingness to miss his favourite soap opera, a triviality which has several metafictional aspects. The soap opera episode in question deals with the happy ending of a captivity arch and the President gets to watch his favourite character free herself while his Vice and numerous others are being imprisoned. The Vice President’s admission to the terrorist leaders that it is due to the soap that the President missed the party is classified as too absurd to be a lie: ‘he believed the Vice President’s story completely. No one could make it up. It was too petty and small-minded’ (Patchett, 2001, 26). The very same soap opera is furthermore shown inside the besieged mansion, creating an imagined community of fans which include the President and his enemies as the show is avidly devoured by some the teenage terrorists and less avidly by the bored older ones. All of these details point to the soap’s role of subverting the alterity of life and fiction: they overlap, blend into one another and question the boundaries separating life from invention as realism gets displaced from life itself and projected onto a reproduction of life. The soap opera also underlines the existence of formulaic art forms designed to provide entertainment without any kind of challenge to thought, only emotional suspense and an enjoyment of familiarity.

In a sense, the soap opera motif stresses the problematic use of content and form analysed above and exposes the depoliticising function art forms can have. Even though the actual sounds of music depicted in the novel cannot be heard, the questions it raises are thus almost deafening.


  1. In basing my discussion on theories of alterity as well as issues of representation, I put on a par two conceptual domains that have been analysed as being interdependent, for instance in anthropology. In his recent ‘revisiting’ of his bookTime and the Other, Johannes Fabian links responses to his ideas of alterity to the crisis of representation in the late 1980s (Fabian, 2006, 144). In order to obviate cognitive dissonance in our respective uses of the term ‘representation’, I would like to point out that in this essay I am mainly concerned with artistic forms of representation, whereas Fabian focuses on the discourse level, on a critical examination of the terminologies and ‘the politics of literary conventions used in anthropological discourse’ (Fabian, 2006, 144). There are similar problems and issues involved, but our respective analyses take place on different levels.
  2. The story is loosely based on the 1996-1997 Tupac Amaru attack and hostage-taking in Peru, as Ann Patchett shares in an interview posted on her website: [accessed 25 November 2008] Also see Mendelsohn (2001), and Jane Marcus-Delgado (Delgado, 2005, 48).
  3. Mergenthal and Reinfandt (Mergenthal & Reinfandt, 2005, 195). The relationship between music and literature has been the subject of numerous comparative studies, many of which are mapped in Mergenthal and Reinfandt’s section on music and literature in the 2004 Anglistentag Proceedings. Taken together, the contributions collected here moreover present a concise overview of the critical literature on writings about music, as does Smyth (Smyth,2002).
  4. In the aforementioned interview, while describing her research previous to her writing of the novel, Patchett has enthusiastically identified opera with language: ‘I absolutely fell in love with opera. It’s been such a wonderful bonus of writing this book. I feel like I learned a second language.’ See, [accessed 12 November 2008].
  5. Although the analogy between Nietzsche’s principles of the Dionysian and Apollinian principles and the binarism of barbarism and civilisation attempted by Marcus-Delgado cannot really be sustained as there are too many variables that distinguish the different discourse from one another.
  6. These developments are documented for instance in Hicks (1991), Donnan & Wilson, eds (1994) and Fludernik & Gehrke, eds (1999).
  7. From charting the tribulations and trajectory of a young white male in eighteenth-century Germany the genre has developed into a gendered, multicultural and dynamic problematisation of the self which is used to examine social constructions of norms and individuality. The history of this genre can be traced in Howe (1969), Hamilton (1974), Suleiman (1983), Leseur (1985), Moretti (1987), Gohlman (1990), Hardin (1991), Fraiman (1993) and Stein (2004).
  8. This aspect of my analysis is only a thumbnail sketch in this essay, but the notion of the book as a metafictional mirror or heterotopia is part of another, larger work in progress.
  9. One of the intertextual cross-roads worth mentioning in this context is that Patchett cites Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg (1924) among her models, and indeed, there are numerous parallels between the consumptive society assembled in Mann’s sanatorium and Patchett’s inmates. However, Mann’s protagonist Hans Castorp finally stumbles out of his regression to confront the storm of modernity represented by World War One from which his illness had been shielding him. In Patchett’s text, the two framing events of violence, the hostage taking at the beginning and their execution in the end mark the start and ending of a hypnotic trance where music poses as a cure, or drug, but without an illness to warrant its use. The triviality depicted in the final chapters of Mann’s novel reigns in the background of Patchett’s from the very start.


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