Softening the landing

Caveat lector: this post discusses the end of the book Bel Canto, so if you’d rather not know, you’ve been warned.

Today I finished reading Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, a book I had been reminded of because recently there’s been a film adaptation¹ and I had wanted to read it when it was originally out but I did not have the same amount of time to read then that I do now. I was happy for the reminder, through it on my holds at my local library, and picked it up a couple of weeks ago.

Reader, it is terrific. It’s everything I could want in a literary novel, cleanly written yet capable of deep insight, drawing you into these characters’ lives, allowing you glimpses of their soul. You kind of get lost in it. I even copied out a couple of brief passages to the notebook I carry around with me. It spoke to me, often. I may even give opera another try.

If you’re not familiar with the novel, it’s fiction based on real-life events. In late 1996, hundreds of people at a party in the Japanese Embassy in Lima were taken hostage by a little over a dozen revolutionaries². They were in a heavily fortified building and the standoff lasted for 126 days; I can remember it happening. As far as I know, the only hostage who died was killed when the military stormed the building. All of the revolutionaries were killed, and some of them were later determined to have been killed “extrajudiciously,” which is to say, they were murdered after having been subdued or having surrendered.

So, I knew where this book was headed. Talking it over with my friend who had also recently read it, I said that the process of reading it was like watching an enormous tree that has been cut through, to fell it, and much of the book felt like watching a moment where the tree was teetering before it fell. Except that here, that moment lasts the hours it takes you to read the book. And, more accurately, I felt that for a few hundred pages, I was that teetering tree.

As I neared the inevitable, I started to wonder how the ending would be handled. I thought a little bit about how I might end the book; I considered that I might end it just as the assault began, just cut it off entirely short, let the reader envision the violence. I thought maybe the book would end in the violence itself, with the shock of the survivors as they were rescued and witnessed the deaths of these people they had spent months with, who they had come to know and who had revealed surprises about themselves. Both would have been kind of staggering gut-punches.

Both of those endings and others like them seem to me to be maybe the very male way to end the book. To attempt to gain for the book a little more critical heft, leaving the reader in that state of being just absolutely drained emotionally by what they’ve read. I can even imagine the sorts of words the reviews would use: daring, unsparing.

Patchett took a different approach. She attached a very brief epilogue, the specifics of which I won’t go into but which look just a little bit forward. It’s hopeful, and it’s tender.

It’s also very generous to the reader. Having been through what we’ve just been through, in those final pages of the novel, just how gut-wrenching it has been, in part because of how it’s been building to its inevitable conclusion, Patchett gives us a moment of comparable grace. It feels like a more feminine approach, I think — it cares more for the reader, it gives you a glimpse of a future, a reason to go on. It doesn’t throw you to the wolves, it doesn’t leave you soaking in the pain.

I felt really well cared for in those last few pages, and I think the novel is better for them. I felt like the author was there with me, knowing the ache I had in the pit of my stomach, that sadness I was carrying with me as I was preparing to set the book down. I felt her holding me for just a few pages, helping me return to the world. Helping temper that sadness. Helping me go on. Reminding me that you can. We do.

¹Reading it, it seemed like a film adaptation would be a tough job, one that would need a truly visionary director to find the heart of and communicate, like a Schnabel or a Todd Haynes or others along those lines. Although I understand why they chose the director they did, because of superficial similarities between this and a show that director executive produced, Mozart in the Jungle. Looking at his film credits, I think it’s safe to suspect that this was a cynical, near-Oscar-season kind of attempt at a prestige grab and I am going to pass. Overall it seems critics have not been tremendously kind. (back)

²Generally speaking, they are referred to as terrorists in what few articles I’ve read. I’m not really comfortable with that term, based on the events. Absolutely they took hostages, and did exchange gunfire with the military, but were not notably violent towards their hostages. I’m not sympathetic to their violent acts by any means, but terrorism is the inspiration of fear as the tactic, and this was more like a negotiating tactic. (back)

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