Monday, January 25, 2021

Ann Patchett's State of Wonder and Bel Canto


Off and on while reading State of Wonder, I was reminded of William Henry Hudson's Green Mansions.  I probably read that book as a child and not again since and so looked it up on Wikipedia.  The article didn't make it seem like what I remembered, but Hudson was a noted naturalist, especially an ornithologist and so may have described the jungle, the "Green Mansions" in the detail I think I remember. 

Patchett was very clever and perhaps playing with those familiar with Conrad.  When it came time to describe her Kurtz-like character, she gives us Dr. Annick Swenson, a short 73-year old scientist who had experimented on herself with natives fertility drug and was seven months pregnant,  demonstrating to her satisfaction and that of her fellow scientists that the drug would work on non-natives.  Swenson is indeed a powerful personality like Kurtz, but the Charles Marlow equivalent is Marina Singh, a tall powerful woman who quickly loses her fear of Swenson (her former teacher) and becomes quite independent toward the end. 

The end is at first unsatisfying for we aren't explicitly told whether Dr Singh will return to Manaus and the laboratory in the jungle beyond, but Patchett does tell us if we have been reading carefully (or if not then after we have gone back and read the ending again) that Dr. Singh isn't going to remain working at the main offices for the pharmaceutical company Vogel because she has already kept secret the fact that the fertility drug (which will be profitable) is tied closely to a malaria cure (which will not be profitable).  Her boss and lover would (both Swenson and Singh believe) order them to quit working on the malaria cure and work solely on the fertility drug.  The worn-out Swenson needs Singh to become her successor in the jungle and though Patchett leaves Singh enjoying her return home in Minnesota, her real home has become the Amazon rain forest.

In regard to Bel Canto, I am reminded of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain.  In Mann's novel, the action such as it is takes place in a sanatorium up the "magic" mountain during World War I.  Seemingly improbably patients, doctors and incidents create a magic for the reader as well as each other.   In Patchett's Bel Canto, a birthday party has been arranged for a Japanese billionaire industrialist Katsumi Hosokawa.  He it turns out has had a life-long love of opera.  A South American nation wanting him to build factories has enticed him to a birthday party they have arranged by means of the appearance of the brilliant soprano, Roxane Coss.  Hosokawa has been known to arrange business meetings in places she has performed in just so he can hear her sing. 

So there they are in the home of vice-president Ruben Iglesias, listening to Roxane Coss sing, when the lights go out and Iglesias home is invaded by local "freedom fighters" who hope to capture the nations president, who was scheduled to attend Hosokawa's birthday party, but backed out in order to see the current episode of a popular soap opera.  The terrorists aren't clear about what to do next.  The nation's police and army aren't willing to storm the house with so many important people inside; so there is a standoff.  Many of the hostages are released, but the most important people are retained.  The resolve of the terrorists becomes less and less clear.  the hostages become more and more comfortable with their situation.  Roxane needs to resume practicing but she needs a new accompanist.

Roxane's previous accompanist concealed the fact that he was a diabetic, and being madly in love with Roxane refused to leave when the women (other than Roxane) and unimportant or ill men were allowed to leave -- and so dies on the floor next to her.  Later on Roxane has the translator question the various people in the room searching for a pianist who can accompany her while she practices.  At first there is no one, "then Tetsuya Kato, a vice president at Nansei whom Gen [the translator] had known for years, smiled and walked to the Steinway without a word.  He was a slightly built man in his early fifties with graying hair who, in Gen's memory, rarely spoke.  He had a reputation for being very good with numbers . . . then without making a request for anyone's attention Tetsuya Kato began to play.  He started with Chopin's Nocturne opus 9 in E Flat major no. 2 . . . from all over the house, terrorist and hostage alike turned and listened and felt a great easing in their chests. . . There was a delicacy about Tetsuya Kato's hands, as if they were simply resting in one place on the keyboard and then in another.  Then suddenly his right hand spun out notes like water . . . ."

When he finished, they all, hostages and terrorists alike clustered about the piano.  Roxane asked him to play for her while she practiced.  He was willing, but he needed sheet music.  Various avenues were explored, at last the priest, Father Arquedas told them of his friend just two miles away who had the music Roxane and Tetsuya needed.  He calls his friend who sends the box of music over.  The red cross man attempts to deliver it, but a petulant general with a headache declares that no more materials will be accepted that day.  The translator and red cross agent argue with the general but he is inflexible.  The red cross agent "barely started to turn away from the house when Roxane Coss closed her eyes and opened her mouth. . . and in the middle of the vast living room began to sing 'O Mio Babbino Caro' . . There should have been an orchestra behind her but no one noticed its absence . . . their eyes clouded over with tears for so many reasons it would be impossible to list them all.  They cried for the beauty of the music, certainly but also for the failure of their plans.  They were thinking of the last time they had heard her sing . . .  All of the love and the longing a body can contain was spun into not more than two and a half minutes of a song, and when she came to the highest notes it seemed that all they had been given in their lives and all they had lost came together and made a weight that was almost impossible to bear.  When she was finished, the people around her stood in stunned and shivering silence.  Messner (the red cross agent) leaned into the wall as if struck.  He had not been invited to the party.  Unlike the others, he had never heard her sing before."

"Roxane took a deep breath and rolled her shoulders.  'Tell him,' she said to Gen [the translator], 'that's it.  Either he gives me that box right now or you will not hear another note out of me or that piano for the duration of this failed social experiment.'"

"Really?" Gen asked.

"I don't bluff," the soprano said."

So Gen related the message and all eyes turned to General Alfredo.  He pinched the bridge of his nose and tried to push down the headache but it didn't work.  The music had confused him to the point of senselessness.  He could not hold onto his convictions. . . With so little sleep he was in no condition to make decisions.  Every possible conclusion seemed like madness.  Alfredo turned and left the room. . ."

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