On December 17, 1996, rebels stormed the Japanese embassy in Peru, taking hundreds hostage in an act of protest against the policies of Peruvian leader Alberto Fujimori. Within days all but 72 of the hostages had been released, but it would not be until the following April that but one of them would survive a hostage rescue operation by the country’s army. This real life historical event inspired Ann Patchett to craft her fourth novel, Bel Canto, published in 2001.
Bel Canto is not, however, a docu-drama fictionalization of that specific event. The characters are entirely fictional and the socio-political conditions driving the hostage situation take a backseat to the more personal interactions between characters. The primary thematic layering is that of an operatic intensity of melodrama, as personified by a famous opera singer as one of the main characters.
Patchett’s first two novels were written in either the first person or with third-person point of view limited to just one character. The expansive characterization driving the narrative moved Patchett to experiment with third-person omniscience; this narrative voice allows the reader to enter into the minds of both the hostages and those who take them hostage.
Bel Canto took home both the Orange Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. A film version has been in development limbo since the novel’s publication. The centrality of opera to its narrative led inevitably to the December 7, 2015 premiere of an adaptation mounted by the Lyric Opera of Chicago.