When I was 15 I went to a week-long youth conference and a sentence one of the speakers said has stuck with me to this day: Don’t miss your moment.
As I was reading Bel Canto by Ann Patchett I realized that her entire book is about this concept: don’t miss your moment!
In a South American country where a government has absolute control over it’s people (which also reminded me of Something Fierce by Carmen Aguirre), a group of terrorist rebels take the president and his dinner guests hostage in order to stage a rebellion. The problem? The president canceled at the last minuet and a handful of generals with their very young soldiers are left with a house full of dinner guests and opera fans. Surprise!
For months the hostages and the captures live in the Vice President’s house and the relationships they form with each other is truly remarkable and beautiful. Patchette is able to take a violent and terrifying situation and breathe humanity into every page.
Near the end of the novel, Patchett is able to create a sense of timelessness and weightlessness and both hostages and captors move seamlessly through a routine of daily events that no one disrupts or interrupts. Both sides turn a blind eye to harmless breaking of minor rules, yet the possibility of fear hangs over both groups for very different reasons: the hostages afraid of being killed or starved and the captors afraid of not having their demands met, torture and death. At one point, the Red Cross worker from Switzerland assigned to act as the negotiator between the government and the terrorists is able to see the situation for what it truly is: “Truly, time had stopped. He had always been here and he would always be here” (302).
As the characters begin to realize the futility of their situation and are stuck between their pasts and their looming futures, one of the characters, Gen the translator,reflects on his time in the Vice President’s house as a hostage and on the relationships he has made, especially with one of the soldiers:
“But these last months had turned him around and now Gen saw there could be as much virtue in letting go of what you knew as there had ever been in gathering new information. He worked as hard at forgetting as he had ever worked to learn. He managed to forget that Carmen was a soldier in the terrorist organization that had kidnapped him. That was not an easy task. Every day he forced himself to practice until he was able to look at Carmen and only see the woman he loved. He forgot that the way he lived now would ever be over. And Gen wasn’t the only one” (304).
In the house, there are several languages spoken: Russian, Japanese, Spanish, Danish, German, French, English. Yet despite the language barrier (often with the help of Gen the translator), the hostages and the captors learn to communicate and understand each other. One of the main factors that holds them all together as equals is the opera music. Every day Roxane Coss, world-famous opera singer, practices and sings and every day she leaves her audience in awe and mesmerized. When Roxane sings, the guns no longer matter. When Roxane sings, it gives hope to all of her listeners. When Roxane sings, it gives courage to those living in the house. Music is the language they all understand it is the music that allows the hostages and the captors to live in a respected peace and harmony.
The hostages and the captors do not waste their time. Together they sigh with relief when one of the hostages reveals he can play the piano and accompany the opera singer. They listen to one of the most famous opera singers in the world sing every day. They listen in amazement as one of the young soldiers takes singing lessons from the opera star. They work together in the kitchen to prepare meals for all 58 of the house’s residents (the soldiers using the knives to chop and the hostages assembling and instructing). They watch one of the Generals and a famous Japanese business man play chess every day. They rejoice together in the sunlight of the yard as they play soccer (soldiers vs. hostages). Despite being in a tense and bizarre stalemate situation, they seize the moment. They continue to live. They choose to carry on and trust, love, accept, and nurture each other.
“Don’t miss your moment.” Rick Rigsby
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” Romans 15:13