edited the summary of Bel Canto Monday, September 20, 2010.
Opera diva Roxanne Coss has come to a small Latin American country to perform at the birthday party of Katsumi Hosokawa, the head of a major Japanese electronics company. Officials of this Latin American company have wooed Hosokawa to the home of the country’s vice president with the promise of Coss’s performance. They hope that their hospitality will prompt Hosokawa to agree to build a factory in the country. But Hosokawa has no interest in building a factory. He has only come because he loves opera and loves Coss’s voice.
As soon as Coss has finished her last song, all of the lights go out in the vice president’s home. A band of terrorists rush into the living room, where the guests are assembled, and demand that the president of the country come forward. It turns out that the president is not at the party; he has stayed home to watch a popular soap opera on television. Thwarted in their original intentions and lacking a fallback plan, the terrorists begin a standoff with the government.
The next day, a representative from the Red Cross, Joachim Messner, arrives to act as a negotiator between the terrorists and the government. The terrorists agree that in return for supplies they will release the workers, the sick, and the women. The only woman they refuse to give up is Roxanne Coss. When Coss’s accompanist realizes that Coss has been detained, he insists on staying with her, although he is terribly ill. A diabetic, he soon dies from lack of insulin.
During the next four months, life takes surprising turns for the better. The hostages realize that aside from the three generals in charge, all of the terrorists are children or young teenagers. The hostages begin to act parental with the young terrorists. They also discover that two of the terrorists are girls. Because the hostages and terrorists speak many different languages, they rely on Gen Watanabe, Hosokawa’s translator, to translate for them. He is kept very busy translating various conversations.
After a few weeks, Coss decides she needs to practice singing. It turns out that one of the hostages, a hardworking executive in Hosokawa’s company, is an excellent pianist. He and Coss begin to practice together every day. The beauty of Coss’s singing makes the hostages and terrorists feel almost lucky to be trapped.
As the weeks and months stretch on, most of the hostages and the terrorists begin to enjoy their lives. Two love affairs blossom. One is between Hosokawa and Coss, and another is between Watanabe, Hosokawa’s translator, and one of the female terrorists, Carmen. This second love affair begins when Carmen asks Watanabe to teach her how to read and write. Watanabe agrees and meets Carmen in secret at night in a china closet. No one else knows about their lessons or their love. Other close relationships form: General Benjamin, the leader of the terrorists, begins to play chess with Hosokawa, and the vice president of the country, Ruben Iglesias, becomes increasingly fond of Ishmael, one of the young terrorists. Iglesias even envisions adopting him.
After several months, a persistent fog lifts. One morning, Cesar, one of the young terrorists, starts to sing. Everyone is amazed at how gifted he is. Coss begins to give him singing lessons. Around the same time, the generals begin to allow the hostages outside to enjoy the yard. There they run around, play soccer, and garden.
A French ambassador, Simon Thibault, is deeply in love with his wife and longs for the hostage crisis to end. He is the only one who feels this way. The rest of the hostages and the terrorists grow happier and happier. They no longer fear one another. They fear what will happen when their captivity ends.
Messner, the Red Cross representative, continues to be the sole outsider to visit the mansion. He, too, grows fond of the terrorists. The terrorists try to forget about what will happen to them in the end, but Messner tries to convince them to surrender. He tells them repeatedly that there is no other hope, but they refuse to listen, since they know that surrendering will mean imprisonment and, most likely, death. After four months have passed, government troops storm the mansion and kill all the terrorists, including Carmen. By accident, they kill Hosokawa, who is trying to protect Carmen from the soldiers’ bullets.
The novel ends with an epilogue in which Coss and Watanabe marry.