Thursday, January 31, 2013

Life imitating art imitating life?

Looking back at the first month of the year, I am once again surprised by the way real life can echo one's reading matter. Or is it the other way round? Anyway, the hostage crisis in the Algerian desert reminded me, in an uncanny way, of a book I had read earlier in the month.

Ann Patchett's novel Bel Canto, which won the Orange Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction in 2002, tells the story of a huge number of people from many different nationalities (including a few Japanese, American and French citizens) being taken hostage by members of a terrorist organisation in an unnamed Third World country. More or less what happened at the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria on January 16. In the novel nearly all the indigenous hostages are freed almost immediately for political or practical reasons, but a few dozen important foreigners are kept for negotiation purposes. Much the same happened in Algeria this month.

In fact, the only fundamentally important difference between fiction and real life was that the fictional hostage drama was drawn out over several months before the authorities sent in their soldiers with sophisticated weapons, while in real life the Algerian government sent in the big guns on the second day. In both cases the outcome was violent and bloody, with most of the captors and some of the captives killed. But the novel's prolonged period of detention made it possible for interesting relationships and even love affairs to develop, not only between captives but even between captives and captors. In other words the time frame made the novel possible. Ann Patchett started out writing what seemed like a political thriller and managed to turn it into quite a moving love story - with a surprising epilogue which won't be divulged here.

It is too early to know if the drama in the Algerian desert will have romantic consequences in the lives of any of the survivors, but I would guess probably not. Life is life, after all, and fiction is fiction. Well, actually the borders are not always that clear, as most fiction readers should know. While the Algerian drama was being played out, I kept wondering about the coincidences in the novel I had just finished reading and ended up doing a little research about Bel Canto. The title, by the way, refers to an American opera singer who is the only woman among the last group of foreign hostages. (At In Amenas there was also only one woman, a French nurse, among the surviving foreign hostages.) If you love opera, you'll probably wallow in the luscious descriptions of the power of the human voice. If you don't, the story might actually tempt you to try listening to a few arias. Be warned.

But what I learned about Bel Canto, while obsessively watching TV news reports on the Algerian event, is that Patchett had loosely based her story on another real-life news event. In December 1996 more than 600 people were taken hostage during a party at the Lima residence of the Japanese ambassador in Peru. The Lima hostage crisis, like Patchett's fictional one, lasted several months, until April 1997. In my own defense I should add that I spent those four months in a rented cottage in a small French village where I knew nobody, without radio, TV or even a telephone, otherwise the story in the novel would surely have rung some bells when I started reading it.

There wasn't any opera involved in the Lima crisis, though. The operatic motive was Patchett's own invention, and a good one too, adding another layer to what could have been a straight-forward suspense story. Unfortunately there seems not to have been any opera singers or singing involved in this month's Algerian hostage crisis either. Unfortunately life doesn't mirror art; it simply imitates little bits and pieces of it -  and sometimes rather poorly too.