Chapter 1 Research and Discussion – Sara Laudeman

Ann Pratchett’s Bel Canto opens with the end of an Opera performance by a fictional soprano Roxane Cross. She is singing at a birthday party for a famous Japanese businessman. As the song ends, the lights fall, and no one thinks twice about the abrupt shift. However, it becomes clear that the prestigious party has been infiltrated by a group of Spanish-speaking kidnappers whose plan had previously been to kidnap the president. That plot is foiled by a simple fact: the President is not at the party. Indeed, he has made last minute excuses in order to watch the latest installment of a soap opera that he follows religiously. In the first chapter, this has already become a motif in the novel. The repetition of the opera as a means for connection becomes clear after Mr. Hosokawa’s memory of the opera is revealed. The opera serves as a connection between the unnamed country hosting the party, Mr. Hosokawa and Roxane Cross, Mr. Hosokawa and the President, and Mr. Hosokawa and the world outside of Japan.

This dynamic is somewhat of an enigma. From the limited scope of the first chapter, we see that the opera is a binding that holds Roxane, Mr. Hosokawa, and the President together. It also serves as a trigger and a reminder for Mr. Hosokawa of his father. The lack of context with regards to the setting is a sharp contrast to the explanation of the past.

I found the lack of explanation about the setting to be very frustrating and more than slightly confusing. Thus, I used that question to direct my research for the week. I decided that I wanted to attempt to discover where the novel might be set based on what I had gleaned from the chapter. I decided that there were three key points to analyze for this investigation. First, we are told that the country is relatively poor. Second, it is stated that it is a country with jungles or rainforests. Third, the kidnappers speak Spanish, which it is also implied is the dominant language in the country.

I started with the third criteria first. However, I immediately ruled out Spain because it is a less-poor country. I came up with a list of countries in the world that speak Spanish as according to One World Nations Online[1]:

Argentina

Bolivia

Chile

Columbia

Costa Rica

Cuba

Dominican Republic

Ecuador

El Salvador

Guatemala

Honduras

Mexico

Nicaragua

Panama

Paraguay

Peru

Puerto Rico

Uruguay

Venezuela

This list is still quite long, but can be narrowed down further based on the presence of jungles or rainforests. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the following countries are in or include parts of the Amazon Basin[2]:

Bolivia

Brazil

Columbia

Ecuador

Peru

Venezuela

According to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Central American Botany page, the following Central American countries contain rainforests[3]:

Belize

Costa Rica

Guatemala

Nicaragua

Panama

The overlap between these two lists is the following:

Bolivia

Columbia

Costa Rica

Ecuador

Guatemala

Nicaragua

Panama

Peru

Venezuela

The novel also specifies that the country is impoverished. The countries from the list follow, ranked in order according to the poverty headcount percent ratio at national poverty lines. That means that the percentage coincides with the proportion of a population that lives below that nationally set poverty line. This is as according to the World Bank data from 2001, the first copyright year for the novel, or the closest reported year.[4]

Ecuador – 64% (2000)

Bolivia – 61%

Guatemala – 56% (2000)

Peru – 56% (2005)

Nicaragua – 48% (2000)

Venezuela – 46% (2000)

Columbia – 45% (2005)

Panama – 38% (2006)

Costa Rica – 21% (2010)

While these reporting years are spread out over a significant time period, the first three countries in the list, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Guatemala, have rates that were reported in a similar timeframe and had notably higher poverty rates than the rest of the countries. These three would seem to be reasonable assumptions for the setting of the novel. While the novel mentions a president, we cannot use this to narrow down the list any further, as all three of those countries are democracies. Of all of the three, upon looking at a map, Bolivia includes the most area of rainforest, followed by Ecuador and then Guatemala in Central America.

Therefore, I would assume that the most logical location for the novel, based on this first chapter, is in Bolivia. It fits with the impoverished country in need of development and factories that is described in the novel as Mr. Hosokawa’s pretense for allowing his birthday to be hosted by a third-world country, even though the reader is shown that his real goal was to meet Roxane Cross.

[1] http://www.nationsonline.org/oneworld/countries_by_languages.htm#Spanish

[2] http://www.britannica.com/place/Amazon-River

[3] http://botany.si.edu/projects/cpd/ma/macentral.htm

[4] http://databank.worldbank.org/data//reports.aspx?source=2&Topic=11

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3 thoughts on “Chapter 1 Research and Discussion – Sara Laudeman

  1. dgromels says:

    Sara, I share your curiosity about the setting of the story and admire your efforts to figure it out with so few clues. I love the way you showed those of us who read your post your thought process as you excluded countries and made educated guesses. As I was reading, I, too, questioned why Patchett might have chosen not to reveal the name of the developing country in which the story takes place. In an interview, she stated that she was inspired by the events of the Lima Crisis in Peru, a country which fits the three qualifications you used to narrow down options for the setting, so it is interesting that she chose not to simply set the story in Peru (“A Conversation”). Perhaps she wanted the reader to think of the country and its inhabitants as representative of developing countries around the world, allowing us to consider the larger themes of the novel without being tied to facts pertaining to a specific nation. The decision not to name the country certainly makes a statement about the universality of socioeconomic class divisions and moral issues they bring up. It also fascinates me that Patchett chose to specifically name the countries from which the wealthier attendees of the party come. Maybe she is making a statement of the lack of visibility developing countries have in the international realm. Additionally, choosing not to divulge the setting allows Patchett more creative freedom to invent facts and situations and allows the reader the opportunity to use our imaginations. I think the author’s decision to exclude the name of the setting is very intentional and any effort on our part to discover which nation to which she refers is futile, even if it is going to bother us for duration of the book, but it is important to acknowledge that the problems country faces could apply to a number of nations.

    “A Conversation with Ann Patchett.” Ann Patchett. 7 June 2007. Web. 3 Sept. 2015.

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  2. hcelemen says:

    Sara, I also admire how much thought process you put into finding the best possible country this story may be set in. I actually thought that it would help you narrow down which country it is using the yellow orchids that were the centerpiece of every table during the party. However, when I did my own research I found that Costa Rica might be the closest because their national flower is the orchid. Of course, this doesn’t prove that this is the correct country considering other factors that Ann Patchett has yet to reveal but it does meet the categories you’ve set in this post: Spanish-speaking, contains rainforests, and impoverished. [1] Furthermore, I realized that there must be a completely different meaning and significance to these yellow orchids so I searched for flower meanings. Yellow is synonymous to joy, new beginnings and is a traditional symbol of friendship. [2] This country put a lot of effort into creating this illusion of prosperity to appeal themselves to their wealthy guests with the pretense of celebrating Mr. Hosokawa’s birthday in order to gain his friendship and hopefully his favor. Another glaring connection that all of these countries have is the soap opera that President Masuda missed the party for. It is interesting that this is something that the terrorists can relate to with this powerful man. The terrorists are shown accepting this excuse because they understood the significance of seeing this particular episode. It is such a genuine and immature reason that everyone was surprised. The percentages you listed for each country suffering low to high rates of poverty shows that even in the far reaches of the rainforest where TVs are rare, this show appeals to most of the population in South America.

    1. http://www.buzzle.com/articles/a-complete-list-of-national-flowers-by-country.html#south-america
    2. http://www.interflora.com.au/htw/flowers-colours-orchids/

    Hannah Celemen

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  3. bsejdiu942 says:

    Hi Sara and Diane,

    I too focused on location of the setting! I found it confusing as to why other locations of business were clearly stated, but this location was not. I liked the fact you statistically ruled out countries based on certain parameters, like a nation’s developmental stage, location near rainforest, botany, and impoverishment. You based these parameters on key descriptions, sometimes only being stated in a seemingly dismissible sentence. I based mine on details listed in the story that came up quite often, that being their names. I did so because President Masuda didn’t sound all that Hispanic. That led to the thought that perhaps this story has a real world reference that the author decided to choose.

    What I find really interesting is that multiple students, from completely different angles, came to relatively similar conclusions about this stories setting. Either from statistical analysis, looking through Japanese ancestry, or directly finding out what inspired the author to write in the first place. I agree with Diane that Patchett left out the location because it prevents us from being attached to one particular place. To see these problems as something universal in South America, and not as some freak incident that occurred at a fancy party. In this way, the readers get a different perspective not often portrayed by your average news network.

    The author is definitely extending this expanded perspective to the terrorist group, but in the reverse. When we hear the word terrorist, we usually think of a group. Insane radicals who want to kill those who don’t follow their ideology. But in this book, the extra details, their actions, the way they interact with the hostages, it begins to tear away at this seemingly defined wall of what a terrorist is. Instead, it seems like the story is making us sympathize with them, that they are individual human beings. Linking up this idea with the history of corruption with most ‘Presidents’ in the referenced location, Patchett almost gives the impression that these individuals are almost freedom fighters. Wanting to get rid of the corrupt powers that be. This is all in the first chapter alone. I think we should continue with this and see if any other connections and underlying perspectives the author is trying to make happens to surface.

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