Monthly Archive for June, 2015

A Night at The Opera

DSCF1856A Night at the Opera
A rather mixed reception was given to Bel Canto by its no nonsense Durham audience this month. They are not easily pleased! Never mind the numerous awards heaped on its author Ann Patchett following its debut in 2001. The ingenious plot delighted and entranced some readers but confused and irritated others who found its light hearted treatment of its numerous characters lacked depth and could not engage them consistently throughout the novel. The story invites us to witness a hostage situation in a Latin American state. They have hired a famous opera singer, Roxanne Coss to perform at a party for the great and good at the Vice Presidents home, in honour of a prospective Japanese customer, head of an electronics company, Katsumi Hosokawa, who is obsessed with opera and with this particular diva. Following her last song the lights go out and rebel militia storm the party intending to kidnap the country’s president. Sorry guys, the president didn’t come and sent his deputy in his place! There then ensues a farcical series of moves resulting in a prolonged siege. 39 of the original guests are forced to remain after the sickly and vulnerable are released, leaving only 1 woman, the opera singer. The author warns us at the outset that it will end in tragedy for the terrorists and maybe some of the hostages so the reader is not in suspense. Instead we are swept into a world in which tragedy is transformed into lyrical beauty as the opera singer performs regularly for all. The music and the voice weave a spell enabling the individuals to develop within the siege, rather like a personal growth retreat . Romances blossom and protagonists gradually exchange meaningless materialistic preoccupations for the pursuit of self actualisation and developing talents in music, singing, domesticity and chess. Perhaps it was this striking juxtaposition of beauty alongside the fear and horror of a terrorist attack that challenged so many of the readers. Was it too melodramatic for a novel; no consideration of the complex political backdrop, the horror and brutality of this human tragedy ? The group considered the characters, often lovable but somehow larger than life rather than true to life, a performing cast, not the usual nuanced creations of the author and reader in collaboration. One of the Durham group is a professional singer and found the message of the transforming power of singing and music overplayed and repetitive even though it is her passion in real life. Others helped us explore the difference in experiencing sound rather than reading about it. They emphasised the bodily sensations and how different this is from the mental activity of reading. This realisation helped define the struggle in the group with this book and enable the discussion to move forward. We needed to experience this book as if it were an opera. I recently read The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan, based on the experience of Japanese prisoners building the Burma Death Railway. This was unflinching in its depiction of the brutality of military imprisonment but also embraced the resilience of the human spirit, the humour and beauty that survive despite all. An interesting contrast with Ann Patchett’s treatment of tragedy and imprisonment. Both, however, recognise the hunger for beauty and humour in those enduring and surviving adversity.

Next month’s read is an interesting treatment of another challenge to the human spirit, the experience of dementia, in Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. Jess will be writing the blog for the group.

Maxine, our group facilitator, is arranging a group visit to Patrick Gale’s talk about his latest novel at the Durham Book Festival in October with reduced price tickets. Contact her to reserve tickets.

Angela Douglas