Summer reads 2021

Book recommendations for a summer of freedom

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August 30, 2021

In an unnamed Latin American country, at the Vice-President’s house, a birthday party has been thrown for a Japanese businessman named Katsumi Hosokawa, in the hope that he will invest in the failing state. Hosokawa loves opera and so, to entice him, the world-renowned soprano Roxane Coss has been invited to sing. After several songs, amid applause, the lights go out. A troop of armed terrorists, who have been hiding in the pipes, burst out and seize the house. Like the guests, they are entranced by Coss’s voice — which gives a name to the novel that opens with these events: Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto.

The terrorists’ intention had been to kidnap the President but, at the last moment, he had cried off and stayed at home to watch his favourite soap-opera. So instead, the terrorists put all the guests — later whittled down to just the men and Coss — under house-arrest. What follows is the slow unfurling of life under siege, or what Alex Clark described as “long stretches of incarcerated ennui.”

Though I had been held hostage by germs not guerrillas — and with my family, not strangers — this mood felt familiar when I picked up Bel Canto over the summer. Incarcerated ennui is one way of describing our basic shared state during lockdown. The four months that the hostages remain in the vice-presidential house, largely confined to a single room, is in one sense present “a vast ocean of time” for the hostages, who are:

largely unfamiliar with the concept of free time. The ones who were very rich stayed at their offices late into the evening. They sat in the backseats of cars and dictated letters while their drivers shepherded them home. The ones who were young and very poor worked just as hard albeit at a different kind of work.

But, “now a great, unfamiliar idleness had fallen on them.”

Hosokawa starts to learn Spanish, committing himself to memorising ten nouns a day and one verb, fully conjugated. His diligence reminded me of those (economically privileged) people who responded to the novelty of lockdown by conjuring sourdough starters and gardening. So many of us found solace in the reassuring rhythms of repetitive projects; perhaps they reminded us of school. Indeed, there was a childlike enthusiasm — among the childless, at least — to make the most of the first lockdown.

Confinement turns Patchett’s hostages into children, too: it gives them time to play, to learn about themselves. One of the teenage hostages turns out to have a very good operatic voice. Tetsuya Kato, a slightly built, greying numbers man at Hosokawa’s company, is revealed to be an exquisite pianist and Coss’s natural accompanist. Ruben Iglesias, the Vice-President, discovers that he “had been taken care of for too long,” and derives great satisfaction from becoming everyone’s houseboy. “Perhaps he had been useful in society,” he reflects, but “he had received no domestic training.” Lockdown domesticated many hitherto high-flying yet impractical individuals, just as, for Ruben, “it had taken a state of captivity to force him to figure out the operation of his own washer and dryer.” There was a choice involved, though: “Of course Ruben could have let it all go … He could have watched the carpets molder in pools of spilled soda pop and stepped around the trash.” How many of us were tempted, to do just that?

The positive self-actualisation of the characters reflects the novel’s tone; as one reviewer put it, it is less Lord of the Flies and more Lord of the Butterflies. It is optimistic, premised on the idea that captivity with others will ultimately produce a civilising effect — and will draw out qualities that would have gone unrecognised in the hostages’ normal lives. Like children on an interminable summer holiday, they start by being bored and listless, but then grow inventive and find creative roles that make the most of their talents. But for the privileged, in lockdown, it was the opposite. The second lockdown, without the backdrop of that glorious spring, challenged the enthusiasm for new projects; people grew frustrated at the monotony and claustrophobia. Bored of playing, stuck at home, we sulked like children, insulated from the world.

Those with children, though, had a radically different experience. Like Hosokawa’s translator, Gen — the one person in Bel Canto who finds himself with more to do rather than less — parents found, in lockdown, that time became not an ocean but a pathetic, parched trickle: home-schooling, relentless meal preparation, constant supervision. The only faint compensation was that the world took notice, for a moment, to the enormous burden that is care. Stay-at-home parents, carers, and cleaners had a moment of vindication: behold, you mighty, and despair!

We are all in the same boat, went the spiel. Confinement unites the hostages. But Coss — with whom all the men, apparently not a single homosexual among them, have fallen in love — is granted the luxury of a bedroom upstairs, with a deep soft bed, while the men bunk down on the floor — finding a place on the rug if they can, on the cold marble floor if they cannot. They, and we, may have been adrift on the same sea, but some were in dinghies, and some were in yachts.

Still, for all of us, lockdown changed our relationship to time. Every life was on hold. Mark O’Connell, author of Notes From An Apocalypse, described lockdown as “a collapse of the experience of time, and of the sense of its meaning,” and reckoned in April that “the flatness of the days, the endless sameness, is building towards some cumulative emotional effect and we have not yet begun to take the measure of it.”

For those confined in the VP’s house, their time outside of time is like a fairy tale. Teenage rebels raised in one-room huts learn to read and cook; hostages fall in love; one young guerrilla becomes like a son to Iglesias. The power of the bel canto — the beauty of Coss’s voice — weaves a spell that makes many of the hostages dream that their state could continue forever, that they could just stay in the big house with the beautiful singing and food brought to their door. Hosokawa has “never been so alive and so much a ghost.”

But, like all things faerie, this enchanted world is an illusion. It is not the President’s soap-opera. The hostages and the terrorists — for whom we also start to care — are in a situation in which there is no possibility of a happy ending, and yet we fantasise one with them. While “Mr. Hosokawa was overwhelmed by love, he could never completely shake what he knew to be the truth: that every night they were together could be seen as a miracle,” because “at some point these days would end, would be ended for them.” Even as “he wished he could stop time,” “he understood that these were extraordinary times, and if their old life was ever restored to them, nothing would be the same.” The hostages must grow up all over again, and re-enter their old and separate worlds — which look completely unfamiliar.