On Turning a Newstory into a Novel in Bel Canto
September 20, 2009.
Ann Patchett' transformation of the 1997 News story of Japanese Embassy Hostage Crisis in Peru into the compellingly personal novel, Bel Canto involved taking a number of liberties with the strict truth to convey truths that are in spirit ... more true. In many ways the truth she illustrates is the same motif that provides a common theme of humanity throughout her previous three novels, that is, a set of characters that fmd themselves" thrown together by circumstance and somehow form a family, a society." (1) But in the process of transformation, she also manages to relay parts of the true story which the news omitted or under-prioritized, and conveys a great deal of insight into the narrative process, of a journalist, of a novelist and of the average human being telling his or her own story. For the initial claim ofthis thesis, I am well backed up by interviews with Patchett herself. While Patchett herself claims her novel is "98% fiction" my hope is to persuade you of the second two claims without any such direct authority on the author's intent. (1)
Patchett manages within the space of this short novel to achieve three very ambitious tasks, to expound on a fundamental truth about human nature, remind the world of underrepresented perspectives of a news item it's already forgotten, and fmally to address the nature of our assumptions about objectivity and neutrality being the best ways to get at the truth.
Introduction: News story
First, allow me to provide a brief synopsis of the Peruvian Hostage Crisis. The largest hostage incident in the 20th century took place in the residence of the Japanese Ambassador to Peru. It was reported as the "Japanese Embassy Hostage Crisis". On December 17, 1996, 14 members of Peru's Tupac Amaro Revolutionary Movement led by General Nestor Cerpa (actually 4 grown men and 10 youngsters recruited from the jungles) held more than 600 guests attending the banquet marking the Japanese Emperor Akihito's birthday as hostages. As in Bel Canto, the majority of the hostages were released in the first few days, more than half, mostly women by day 3. Over the next 126 days, hostages trickled out, 255 on day 5 and 20 more on day 11. Certain hostages requested to remain, including a minister Juan Julio Wicht, who was allowed, and a journalist, Sally Bowen, who was denied.
Some, as could be expected, came out as ambassadors for the hostage takers, "Javier Diez Canseco, a leftist Peruvian congressman, was among the 38 men who were released on (the third night). He defended his captors and called for the government to negotiate a settlement with them. Canseco said that the hostage-takers are "18 to 20 years old, maybe 21 ... They're a group of special forces, commandos. I think they're young men who want to live. They don't want to die.'" (5)
Some hostages secretively cooperated with the military plans, smuggling in surveillance devices that communicated to the outside forces key information about the militant's routines. But others, as in the novel, notably a Canadian ambassador who after being released later returned as a negotiator, seemed protective oftheir captors. The MRTA spent the first few days of the occupation winning some captives over "engaging them in philosophical conversations about the free market economy and the poor whose lot, he felt, would never improve" (2).
International discussions on how to handle the situation went on for months with most countries that had hostages involved, opposing any sort of military solution. At one point there was even talk Fidel Castro would come in as a negotiator to end the siege, as he had been able to with a similar operation in Bogota, Columbia in 1980.
On April 22, members of the MRTA were taken entirely by surprise when an explosion from a tunnel under the floor where they were playing indoor soccer. Three different groups of more than 20 commandos each rushed in through various doors and openings caused by. explosions. Those MRTA members that did not die instantly surrendered and were shot anyway. A few who were taken hostage by the Commandos were found mysteriously shot execution style. All fourteen were killed along with one hostage, a member of the Peruvian Supreme Court, who apparently had a pre-existing heart condition. It came out later that President Fujimori had ordered that no MRTA member be taken alive.
In the real world, while the raid boosted Fujimori's popularity among conservatives, and spokespeople for international governments remained either supportive of his actions or carefully neutral, response from many camps mounted to outrage. Chilean and Mexican demonstrators rallied outside their respective Peruvian embassies. Domestic and International charges were filed against the military officers accused of the executions. Eventually they were given amnesty under military tribunals. President Fujimori himself is now serving 25 years in prison for unrelated convictions of murder and kidnappings of Peruvian leftist guerillas, in addition to another 7 ~ year sentence for embezzlement.
The Japanese ambassador's residence had been converted into a fortress by the Japanese government. It was surrounded by a 12-foot wall, and had grates on all windows, bullet-proof glass in many windows, and doors built to withstand the impact of a grenade. It was, therefore, an easy site to defend from the inside. (4) This departure from the far less defensible mansion depicted in the novel serves Patchett's stated purposes in a couple of ways.
Demilitarizing the House which la Familia invades, enhances her depiction of them as novices and virtual innocents. Patchett takes this license to highlight that ultimately, regardless oftheir success in mounting the original invasion, the militants in terms of their place in society were ultimately powerless, an important basis for understanding why their need to be heard had to come to a matter of violence in the fIrst place. As an aside, fudging the location could also be interpreted as veiled reference to the media's own lax adherence to the facts. The real hostage situation after all took place in the Ambassadorial residence, not the embassy itself but this distinction was lost in most ofthe media coverage. It's a trivial departure but one that points to conventions in reporting that tends toward the more simplistic and the more spectacular.
Finally having chosen to set the debacle in the host country's backyard rather than on the sovereign soil of the JapaneSe embassy, Patchett manages to illustrate how much greater an embarrassment this was for Peru than for Japan. By enhancing this embarrassment, she aptly sets up pride as a chief motivator in the host country's ultimate response, serving both the thrust of the novel's plot but also a more nuanced reading of the real event.
Though Patchett invents the name "La Familia de Martin Suarez," the distinction between MRTA and a more violent revolutionary movement is real. In the novel they are called La Dirrecci6n Autentica. In real life, General Nestor Cerpa who led the raid "asked pollsters among the captives about his group's standing, and whether Peruvians distinguished between the Tupac Amaro and the much more bloodthirsty Shining Path movement. In a statement, he suggested that the Tupac Amaru could transform itself into a political party." (2) Bel Canto's General Alfredo expects the same Gistinction to be made.
"Messner raised his hand for Gen to stop. "La Familia de Martin Suarez?" The General nodded. "Not La Dirrecci6n Autentica?" Messner kept his voice down. "You said we were reasonable men," General Alfredo said, his voice swelling with the insult.
In reality there was no opera singer, no Mr. Hosokowa, no Gen. I love the way Patchett herself explains this contribution.
"When I was watching all of this unfold on the news-- and the book is about 98% fiction-- I thought this is so operatic what's happening in Lima. The only thing that's missing from this story is an opera star hung up with the rest of these people, which is the nice thing about being a novelist instead of a journalist. When you see a story that is crying out for an opera singer, you just stick an opera singer into the story." (1)
There wasn't even a birthday guest for that matter. As could be expected the emperor was not in attendan~e, and neither was the real Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori. That the missing president is one of Patchett's few loyalties to the actual guest list is significant. The idea could well have come from a New York Times story with a notably human interest slant published just a few days after the raid, in which journalist Diana Schemo highlighted the absence this way:
"the annual birthday celebration for Emperor Akihito, the diplomatic soiree of the year for Japanese emba~sies around the world. Sipping cocktails and nibbling sushi on.the lawn behind the Japanese Ambassador's house were Lima's most important political and social figures, including the foreign and agricultural ministers, the President of the Supreme Court, six Supreme Court justices, five generals of the National Police and President Alberto K. Fujimori's mother, sister and brother. The American Ambassador, Dennis Jett, had left the party early, but seven American diplomats had stayed behind. The only usual guest missing was the most important one: President Fujimori." (2)
But the biggest liberty Patchett takes with the guest list (other than her invention of the protagonists) is to stress a more business-orientated set of dignitaries where the real party was far more heavily attended by government officials, who in addition to those mention above included the chief and former chief of Peru's anti-terrorist police, DINCOTE; Alejandro Toledo, who later became President of Peru; and Peruvian Congressman Javier Diez Canseco. A few things are achieved in this way. The host country is further concealed by downplaying its truthfully integral relationship with Japan. The guests are depoliticized in the same way the house was allowing the relationships between captors and captives to develop more believably, and doing away with the messier reality of those captives who conspired against the MRTA. The presence of anti-terrorist police among the hostages could well be seen as a piece of dramatic irony of the true story, but had Patchett included it, that irony would have distracted us from the pitch of the plot design irony she intended as a male. How could we be astounded by the death of all the captors if we could have foreseen such a contentious subset among the captives?
President Fujimori became a protagonist in the press coverage, in a way he could not in the insular world of Patchett's novel. The news came during a period oflow popularity for President Fujimori down from a high of75 percent in January of 1996 to 40 percent by the December incident. Peru's economic program has failed to produce jobs. The Peruvian economy has been stagnant all year after good growth in years 1994 and 1995. (6)
Patchett makes an exception to the insularity of her universe and develops Masuda's character around the very fact of this absence. On page 10 begins her description of the buzz of speculation for this terrible departure from good form. We learn through the vice president's chagrinned musings that, Masuda is enthralled by a soap opera that airs at the same time as the party. In fact, our author cleverly juxtaposes Masuda's glee that his favorite character Maria is free from her kidnappers in direct juxtaposition with our discovery that the party guests have been taken captive. "Maria was free! President Masuda rocked back and clapped his hands silently. To think he had almost missed this after waiting for weeks! ... Then in an instant the picture of Maria was gone and Ruben Iglesias lifted his face to the lights ... everywhere the Vice President turned the edges of the room seemed to push forward, yelling." (3:11-12) Clearly the lack of sympathy the reader feels for this buffoon is connected to something Patchett finds elemental to the story.
But is Patchett only indicting Masuda? So many complicated points about "the News" are made in this short s~quence: our competing appetites for fantasy and truth, who is in charge of the version of truth we consume, and our eagerness to swallow more sensational truths than those which are deemed the ho-hum and predictable dynamics of current events or affairs of state. Throughout the party, Iglesias covers for the President saying "Matters in Israel" are detaining him and the dramatic irony reaches the decibel level of a guffawing hyena. In real life we have discovered that Fujimori's later cowboy approach to the raid and enjoyment of hero status afterwards was more the stuff of fiction and public image-construction than responsible reality.
Wikipedia tells us, "as the commandos tore down the flag of the MRTA that had been flying at the roof of the embassy, Fujimori joined some of the former hostages in singing the Peruvian national anthem. Peruvian TV also showed Fujimori striding among the dead guerrillas; some of the bodies were mutilated. Fujimori was famously photographed standing over the bodies of Nestor Cerpa and Roli Rojas on the main staircase of the residence, and Rojas' destroyed head is noticeable in the photograph. Shortly thereafter President Fujimori was seen riding through Lima in a bus carrying the freed hostages." (4)
Does Patchett's depiction of Masuda condemn only his apathy or our own? In an interview on the subject, Ann Patchett answered this way,
" ... when I sent this book around to different editors-- of course it didn't come with a piece of paper from me saying, this is the based on the takeover of the Japanese embassy- no one knew. Not one person recognized the real events of the story ... But it's the reason that I call the country "The Host Country" instead of Peru, because I thought by the time this book comes out no one is going to remember this. Tragedy, in my experience, is always replaced by tragedy. We hold one crisis close to our heart until the next cnsis comes along and it obliterates the one before. So we tend not to remember things that happened six years ago in South America." (1)
Another benefit of keeping the country ambiguous is to avoid provoking any political prejudgments, and also to soothe the reader into the unreality (and therefore more safe environment to form attachments to the characters) of the scene. Fiction somewhat hinders the assumptions that come with a news story ... "I'm not being told the whole story," "this is going to end badly," or conversely "This is the whole story. Those rebels are nuts!" and "aw, big deal! this stuff always happens 'down there'"
But Patchett asserts there is such a thing as a gradient of audience and participator complacency. As consumers of news we are in many ways helpless and comforted by that fact. The stories unfold hundreds or thousands of miles away. Even the hostages felt better when they were on the floor. "They could no longer plot to overpower a terrorist or consider a desperate run at the door ... they were considerably less likely to be accused of doing something they did not do." (3:21)
The most significant point on this gradient is Mr. Hosokawa's conscience. He was aware of there being dishonesty to his very presence at the party. He was lured in by the entertainment and had no intention of arriving at any business deals. But Hosokawa's tortured attitude towards his own responsibility for the event becomes a perfect foil for Masuda's oblivious grand-standing.
In an interview with Powell's books in Portland, OR, Patchett explained that this ·was the first time she took on the omniscient third person narrator, "what I think of as a Russian third, the Anna Karenina-third where it moves from person to person within a room during the course of a single conversation." (7) I believe Patchett's experiment with this voice at some point resonated with the problem of turning a news story into a novel, and the subject of objectivity partly inspired the characters of Joachim Messner and Gen Wantanabe. Both function as a sort of benchmark in the story for what it means to be loyal to the truth, in the midst of so many competing agendas and perspectives. The author uses the very presence of their characters to provide a running dialogue on the journalistic ideal and the narrative voice.
It bears mentioning that Michel Minnig, the International Red Cross representative sent in to negotiate the real life crisis was also Swiss. As a member of the Red Cross and a Swiss citizen, there is a duality even to the two aspects of neutrality that Messner represents. Both entities enjoy the exemption of a sort of strategic disinterest. When the crisis begins Messner is a Swiss man on vacation, unthreatened and "inordinately casual." (3:39) As the conflict wears on though, this casual disinterest dissolves to a degree as even he, an outsider, unwittingly develops sympathies that extend as much to the Generals as to the guests he is supposedly protecting from them. While his personal safety is never threatened, his disinterest is no longer as sure-footed.
So he increasingly relies on his Red Cross training to justify his neutrality, "More than any negotiation Messner had ever been involved with, he found that he didn't really care who won this one ... he wouldn't mind seeing these people get away, the whole lot of them." (233) He'd "stopped wearing his armband a long time ago but he didn't believe in it any less. . .. Members ofthe Red Cross ... did not spy. They were not moles. Joachim would have no more told the terrorists what the military had planned than he would tell the military what was happening on the other side of the wall." (3:297)
Still, unlike the hostages who must always show their captors a certain degree of deference, Messner is always able to be only himself, to maintain a ceft?in personal integrity because his neutrality keeps him safe. From the very introduction of his character, I believe that Ann Patchett uses this freedom Messner represents to parallel the artistic license and the luxury of personal integrity she enjoys in her own role of fictional adaptor of truth.
Gen Wantanabe' s neutrality as translator is an even more idealized definition of objectivity, and his ability to live that ideal falls away as his life becomes more real to him. As a translator he is bound by a sense of service to keep his own opinions and impressions quarantined from his voice as much as possible. He embodies the journalistic ideal of objectivity, and it is not until 'he's met Carmen, that he begins to understand just how much he has missed out on of real connection to other human beings. With his grasp of language he has never been short on facts, but in his heart he has always missed the scoop. Patchett's development of Gen's character and his declining usefulness to those around him, outside the sphere of those he's discovered he loves, provides the final and most elegant rationale for her own choice of an omniscient narrative voice.
We first meet Gen through the lens of Mr. Hosokawa's appreciative first impression: "Over the next two days, everything Gen touched became a smooth surface ... But it was not his presence that Mr Hosokawa was drawn to, it was his lack of presence" (3:17). Gen is a perfect example of the anticipator of the needs of both sides of a dialogue. Like a journalist and an omniscient narrator, his role is to filli the dark spaces of a reaer's comprehension. It follows though that this responsibility shapes the way the news is reported. Assumptions must be made about the audience's assumptions. In an emphasis on what is assumed to be unknown, the "new," the press pften absolves itself of the disservice done to a public that may be unaware of the old news, the context, the other side of the story. A reporter can bet by with this. A storyteller cannot.
As Patchett begins to let the appearance of Gen's objectivity crumble, we come across a frequent element of television journalism: fun with pronouncs. "Gen translated it all into French, and German and Portuguese, each time careful to say their people on the outside. Something a translator shoudl never do" (3:97). Gen is involved whether he likes it or not, and very deliberately choses the side he is on. Most journalists would call this a necessary evil of brevity, but choosing who gets labeled "us" and she gets labelled "them," rather than straight reporting quoted directly from the speaker's mouth is as Gen himself knows, not objective.
And what good is objectivity in the language of love? When Carmen has finally come to his attention, Gen becomes aware that, "in his genius for languages, [he] was often at a loss for what to say when left with only his own words. It had occurred to himn in his life that he had th esoul of a machine and was only capable of motion when someone else turned the key" (3:145). Even, when asked by Fyodorov to translate his declaration of love to Roxane Coss, he feels like he's been tricked, "You never said anyting to me about love ... This is not what I believed I was here to translate." (3:213) What Gen is getting at whether he knows it or not, is that there are certain times in life where it is inappropriate to pretend you are invisible. Love, compassion, heartbreaking beauty, and even horror, or tragedy are not necessarily most truthfully conveyed with a straight face.
Finally, when Gen is called upon by the Generals to translate their orders for the guests to go outside, and all he knows is that the captors have all been told to arm themselves, he believes that they are being led out to be executed. With his own life so full, he can no longer be just a channel. Instead, he acts as a blockade. "But Gen didn't translate. That was no longer his profession. Instead he asked, 'For what purpose?''' (3:280)
And that says it all. Patchett experienced the unfolding of the Japanese Embassy Hostage Crisis as her own private performance of an opera. When she embarked on the task of turning that story into a novel, she could not ignore that her personal relationship with the beauty and the tragedy of the story was the truth she was most honestly capable of conveying. And that truth included her imagination, the degree to which it was set in motion to the song she was hearing. It included the dark spaces of comprehension of a news audience, the frustration with what was not being said, and the surprising connection and love she was feeling for both the captives and the captors under siege from the outside, from the objective point of view. She could have been more loyal to the story that was reported, but for what purpose? From where she stood, it was a story, no less and no more true than the one blooming into vision before her inner eye.
This paper was submitted as a write up of a talk..