Novel of the week

Bel Canto

Ann Pratchett <em>Forth Estate, 318pp, £10</em>

ISBN 1841155829

The point of departure for Ann Patchett's new novel is the raid, in December 1996, on the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru, which lasted for more than four months and during which one hostage and 14 rebels were killed. Bel Canto, like La Traviata, opens on a wonderful party. In the unnamed capital of an underdeveloped country, the vice-president is hosting a birthday party for a Japanese industrialist. Mr Hosokawa has been seduced into attending the party, held in his honour, by the promise of a private performance from the world-famous soprano Roxane Coss. As the last notes of the aria from Dvorak's Rusalka settle on a rapt and prestigious international audience, the lights go out and another uninvited audience, ragged and gun-toting, bursts from underground and takes the whole party hostage.

This is a promising basis for a novel: a canny way to combine the austere desert island scenario with high culture, and a neat means of imposing the classical dramatic constraints on action, character and setting. Patchett is an astute and amusing observer of bourgeois shock, immediately dividing the female hostages into two groups: those who expect to survive and are careful not to crease their gowns as they lie down on the drawing-room floor, and those quicker to anticipate death or worse and abandon their sartorial preoccupations. She continues to divide and subdivide the group by temperament, nationality, religion and intellect, but soon the problem faced by the terrorists becomes Patchett's own: there are simply too many of these people and some of them must go.

For their part, the terrorists only meant to take a single hostage, President Masuda, who should have been at the party but wasn't, because it clashed with his favourite soap opera. They are a splinter organisation of impoverished outlaws, aiming to overthrow the government in the name of the people; most of them adolescents following a doughty old general, painfully disfigured by shingles. When General Alfredo collapses in an armchair, his face covered in blisters, sighing with relief because most of the hostages have been released and the remaining 40 will be much more manageable, Patchett's own relief is also audible. She gives very fleeting attention to the problem of establishing discipline and routine in such peculiar circumstances, noting that "a week after Mr Hosokawa's birthday party ended seems as good a place as any" to rejoin the story. And she homes in on the love interest that emerges, in true operatic style, between two couples: Hosokawa and Coss (sharing only the language of music); and Hosokawa's fantastically skilled translator, Gen, and a girl terrorist called Carmen.

The best parts of this uneven novel are the most hammed-up and comically implausible. They offer a novelistic celebration of opera, where no one ever held wild improbability against a charming libretto. In the necessary absence of music and singing, farce comes out on top. There is an excellent scene in the kitchen where a French hostage settles down to preparing coq sans vin, directing a line-up of terrorists wielding confiscated kitchen knives. But many of the more passionate and romantic scenes seem wooden and affected. "Her knees touched his legs. If he took even half a step back he would be on the commode." The beleaguered General Alfredo is far from convincing when he insists, "We are an army, not a conservatory." All around, people burst into song as they rediscover the importance of music. As a result, the community of prisoners and guards acquires a surprisingly anodyne, ad hoc identity as the weeks pass, making the predictable (and authorially predicted) bloody ending all the more baffling. It's like gunmen breaking into the Big Brother house and murdering the inmates: horribly silly.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, So what tribe do you belong to?

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide