Chapter 1: Inequality & Isolation

From the outset Ann Patchett’s novel, Bel Canto, establishes the central theme of wealth inequality and the turmoil that can arise due to such economic instability. The main protagonist, Mr. Hosokawa, embodies this point through his immense wealth and upper class status as the CEO of a major technology company. This contrast between the prosperity of the protagonist and the country hosting him speaks volumes to the desperation and eagerness to transcend their current drug focused economy. The lengths that the country took in order to host the perfect party only emphasizes their need for Mr. Hosokawa’s intervention both economically and as a sign of stability.

In the real world such favour for powerful business owners often return significant foreign investment. In a joint research paper from the University of Zürich and John Hopkins University examining the effects of foreign investment on economic growth it was concluded that although foreign investment can yield a short-term increase of growth it also increases the economic inequality within said country. In addition, sustained cumulative foreign investment like the kind Mr. Hosokawa would provide actually decreases the relative rate of economic growth of a country. [1]

Such inequality also poses an immense political imbalance between the people and their government. The World Bank in their Inequality and Shared Prosperity Overview statement actually noted that “To date, no country has managed to transition beyond a middle-income status while maintaining high levels of inequality.” [4] This turmoil is felt by everyone in a country, regardless of age, gender, or creed. As such the terrorists depicted in the novel are commonly referred to as “boys” or “young people” because they are just that, children. These terrorists are even described as “simple people” believing in “simple things” only equipped with primitive kitchen knives and a pistols. This kind of resistance is not one of power but one of desperation. It is difficult not to feel at least some pity for these so-called “terrorists” due to how he country’s leaders are similarly desperate for Mr. Hosokawa’s aid.

By expressing an interest in a factory the country in this novel also indirectly expressed an interest in world trade. Deepak Nayyar in his book Engagement with the World  Economy mentions how “Industrialization was seen as an imperative in catching up…the spread of markets and the gathering momentum of globalization reinforced the process, which led to a marked increase in the degree of economic openness in developing countries.” [2] This idea plays out in the novel with the country wishing to ramp up industrialization through Mr. Hosokawa’s factory and in the process slowly ease into the global market.

Isolation is another theme that is readily apparent throughout this first chapter. The easiest type to ascertain is the isolation of the country itself from the rest of the world. Aside from the wealth inequality there is ever-present language barrier that even warrants the inclusion of the character named “Gen” who acts as Mr. Hosokawa’s translator. In the novel it is even stated that “large number of people unable to speak the language of the host country.” Although this party was for foreign dignitaries the fact that the host language isn’t as widespread as other nations’ languages suggests that the country does not have the gross domestic product(GDP) to be considered relevant. In a research document by Mark Davis published by the Unicode Consortium titled “GDP by Language” it is very clear that the larger the global GDP percentage a country accounts for the more popular that language is globally.[3]

The fact that the country itself is never named and instead is resigned to “this country” further isolates the country from the wealthy, often named characters like Roxane Coss and Mr. Hosokawa. The unnamed country aspect also allows for the author to let the reader imagine where the birthday party is taking place which both engages the reader into the story that much more while also avoiding any bias the reader may have with any one country.

Isolation as a country is one thing but between individuals like the dynamic between Roxane Coss and Mr. Hosokawa is entirely different. After listening to Miss Coss since his daughter Kiyomi bought him his first Roxane CD five years ago Mr. Hosokawa has been obsessed with her music trying to attend as many of her performances as possible. As such Mr. Hosokawa has only ever seen the professional side of Miss Coss and as a result will most likely misunderstand her actions should the need arise. Roxane on the other hand has had no official contact with Mr. Hosokawa til this point due to him resigning himself to just “any other member of the audience.”

Michael Pedersen



One thought on “Chapter 1: Inequality & Isolation

  1. dgromels says:

    Michael, I think you make a really good point about the potential ramifications of a factory opening in the host country. As I was reading, I automatically assumed that the factory would benefit the citizens of the country, but as you pointed out, it would likely be far more beneficial to those at the top of the chain. Your post reminded me of a class I took that focused on micro and macroeconomic strategies for catching developing countries up with the developed world. In the class, we learned that microeconomic strategies, characterized by their focus on individual people, households, and agencies, often work better than just bringing in large companies where employees work for unjust wages. These more effective strategies include providing credit to workers so they can start their own businesses as well as educating natives to increase the productivity within a country.

    Bryson pointed out in his weekly posting that it seems strange that Mr. Hosokawa would not want to invest in building a factory in a nation in which the leaders seem so eager to have it. I wonder if Hosokawa is not only concerned about the lack of developed infrastructure (i.e. power grid) within the host country, but also about the effects the factory will have on the area. Maybe one of the reasons he is hesitant to build there is because he has seen the detrimental effects his factories have had on developing countries in the past, especially considering he does not come from an affluent background and likely is able to identify with the natives on some level.

    I also find your research on the relationship between the popularity of a language and the GDP of the countries in which languages are spoken fascinating. Language is such an integral part of the identities of both individuals and nations, which explains why respecting others’ language is so important, as we discussed in class. Perhaps the characters in the book will begin to learn the host country’s language as they are trapped in the vice president’s house, allowing them to look at the country from a new perspective and gain a greater appreciation for those who have less than they do.


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