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• Friday, April 24th, 2015

Ann Patchett was born in Los Angeles, California, in 1963 from a novelist mother, Jeanne Ray, and a police officer father, Frank Patchett. She went to high school at St. Bernard Academy, which is a private catholic school for girls. After graduating, she attended Sarah Lawrence College in New York, where she took fiction writing classes followed by Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa. In 1990 she won a residential fellowship to the Fine Arts Work Centre in Provincetown, Massachusetts where she wrote her first novel, The Patron Saint Of Liars.

Patchett has written fiction and non fiction books. She received the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Nashville Banner Tennessee Writer of the Year Award in 1994 and in 2002 she won the Orange Prize for Fiction and the PEN, Faulkner Award for her breakthrough fourth novel, Bel Canto, which sold over a million copies in the USA and has been translated into several languages. She lives with her physician husband in Nashville Tennessee.

Bel Canto is set in a nameless Latin American country, where the world famous American lyric soprano, Roxane Coss, is hired to sing at a cosmopolitan reception held in the luxirious mansion of the vice president, Ruben Iglesias, in honour of an influential Japanese businessman, Mr. Katsumi Hosokawa, founder and chairman of the successful electronics company, Nansei. The poor host country has arranged this very costly party to celebrate Mr. Hosokawa’s fifty-third birthday, hoping to attract investment and knowing that he would attend in order to listen to his favourite opera singer, Roxane Coss, whom he has been following in concert halls all around the world.

At the end of Coss’s last aria from Rusalka by Dvorak and at the end of an excellent evening, a rebel group called: La Familia de Martin Suarez – three generals and fifteen soldiers aged between fourteen to twenty recruited from the country side – disrupt the gathering to kidnap the president of the country who is not present because he preferred to stay at home to watch his favourite television soap opera. So instead of president Masuda, the entire party is taken hostage. Later on the women and children will be released and thirty nine men plus Roxane Coss will be retained as hostages for four and a half months.

After the fear and panic subside and after a period of readaptation on both sides when the kidnappers find nowhere to go nor how to deal with the unexpected situation of their failed plan, an amazingly beautiful bond of solidarity, love and friendship between captors and captives and among the hostages themselves develops. This is regardless of outside pressure and the constant visits of the International Red Cross worker, Joachim Messner. This fascinating relationship shows that people can become friendly and compassionate with strangers given the chance, and that nobody can be completely bad beyond retrieval, so there is still a hope for humankind.

As the days and months pass, the very young abductors discover their hidden talents. Ishmael becomes a good chess player, only by intently observing his general playing some games with Mr. Hosokawa – the two being good chess players. Cesar can now sing operatic parts learnt from listening to Roxane’s singing and Carmen is fast learning the various languages taught to her by her lover, Gen. Even the Nansei Electronics vice president, Tetsuya Kato, who is usually dealing with numbers, lets his pianistic talent surface. He is only too happy to be Roxane Coss’s new accompanist after the unfortunate death of her Swedish one.

Roxane Coss becomes the revered idol of everybody. Captors as well as captives succumb to her every whim. She is treated like the diva she really is and in return she delights her audience everyday with her delightful arias from Alfredo Catalani’s La Wally, arias from Vincenzo Bellini, Paolo Tosti, and Franz Schubert’s Die Forelle. They are all now held captive by her beautiful singing and don’t wish to be released from their abductors. She knows that she is a very special, gifted star and enjoys the bewitching effect she has on her audience.

The Japanese gentleman, Mr. Hosokawa, is for the first time facing real passion after experiencing it only virtually all these years, when every evening at home he listens to the bel canto after a hard day’s work. Now he is living a dream and doesn’t want it to end. What could he have wished for more than living with his adored opera singer, Roxane Coss, and hearing her practising her delightful singing every day. For him it’s a pleasure beyond imagination and is even more enhanced when the spiritual meets carnal desire in the early hours of the morning in the bed of his beloved, Roxane, who shares his sentiment.

Gen Watanabe, Mr. Hosokawa’s private Japanese translator, is a professionally gifted polyglot, now working full time translating important as well as trivial matters for everyone, the abductors as well as the abducted. He is surrounded by people of various languages and nationalities: Argentinians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Germans, Danes, French, Italians, Russians and English. He attains his reward after a hard day’s work when, hidden in the china cupboard, he makes love every day at two o’clock in the morning with one of his captors, his beloved, beautiful, Carmen, who is also madly in love with him.

Bel Canto is a well-written story with subtle, well depicted characters although viewed under a stereotypical eye. There is the polite bowing of the Japanese men, mentioned often in the novel. The French diplomat, Simon Thibault, who is passionately in love with his wife, Edith, and who volunteers to do the cooking because “he’s French. The French know how to cook”. Then there is the ardent and heavy smoker, the Russian Muscovite, Victor Fyodorov, who bores Coss with his irrelevant childhood stories as an introduction to his love declaration for her. There is also the conscientiously serious German Lothar, a vice president of the pharmaceutical company Hoechst, who feels deeply sad about the death of Roxane Coss’s piano accompanist because of a lack of insulin, given that his company is a leading manufacturer of the drug.

All indulgent, happy, leisurely moments have an end in real life and operas by definition have dramatic endings. Since the novel is called Bel Canto, the dénouement of the story is like an opera finale – dramatically moving.

• Sunday, February 02nd, 2014

Elif Shafak was born in 1971 to Turkish parents, a philosopher father and a diplomat mother, in Strasbourg, France. Her parents divorced when she was one year old and she returned to Turkey with her mother, which left an imprint on her life. A single child raised by a single divorcee mother was an unusual situation in a patriarchal environment in Ankara in the early 1970s.

Shafak lived between her traditionalist, irrational, superstitious grandmother in Ankara and her well educated, feminist, westernised, diplomat mother, abroad. She travelled all over the world which made her a multicultural and cosmopolitan person in her life and in her writing, combining eastern and western cultures as well as traditions in her novels.

Shafak writes in Turkish and English and is the most widely read woman writer in Turkey. Her books have been translated into many languages. She has won Turkish literary awards and has received several prestigious international prizes, one of them being the French honorary distinction of Chevalier des arts et des lettres in 2010.

Shafak is also a political Scientist and assistant professor. She obtained a Masters degree in Gender and Women’s Studies and a Ph.D. in Political Science at Middle East Technical University in Turkey. Her Master’s thesis on Islam, Women and Mysticism received an award from the Social Scientists Institute. She has been a teacher at various universities all over the world.

Shafak writes for a number of daily and monthly publications in Turkey and has contributed to several newspapers in Europe and in the USA as well as writing lyrics for Turkish musicians.

She lives with her two young children and Turkish husband who works as editor-in-chief for an Istanbul newspaper. She divides her time between Istanbul – the Turkish city that she is very attached to and which takes a central part in her novels – and London.

Her book, Honour, was written in English and published in 2012.

Adem Toprak is from Istanbul and his Kurdish wife, Pembe, was born and raised in a small, remote, roadless village called Mala çar Bayan located near the river Euphrates. Pembe has always longed to travel and after her marriage she moves to Istanbul, where her two children, Eskender and Esma were born. Her wish is fulfilled when her husband decides to emigrate with the family to 1970s bustling London, before the arrival of their third child Yunus.

Once in London, Adem and Pembe want to believe in love and freedom but deep inside they can’t get rid of, nor leave behind, their entrenched resistance to adapt to a different culture, nor their ingrained perception of betrayal, shame and honour.

Honour is the story of three generations of a Turkish and Kurdish family. Through the various narrators and viewpoints, the author is juxtaposing eastern and western cultures as well as conservative and modern societies.

The story revolves between Turkey and London. It starts with Esma and ends with her. Esma is the second Toprak child, a bright student. She is ambitious, independent, strong headed and destined to a bright future. The irony is that after her studies and her ambitious dreams, she ends up like her mother as a housewife. Esma has now two twin daughters following her marriage to the considerate and caring Palestinian immigrant scientific scholar, Nadir.

Yunus and Nadir become good friends. After sharing some thrills with a group of punk squatters, that he came across by chance in his early teens, Yunus becomes a successful musician with a band.
Throughout the story the author emphasizes the three siblings’ – Eskender, Esma and Yunus – different degrees of adaptation to the western world. Each one of them trying to adapt in his own way and according to the circumstances they are facing.

Feeling uprooted and lost in his new adopted country, Adem, the head of the family, has been brought up by an “at times sober, sweet and kind and at times drunken, evil and violent” father and a submissive mother who disappears out of his life at an early age. Having had this unsettled and insecure upbringing, Adem, once in London becomes an addicted gambler. He spends all his money to satisfy the needs of his Bulgarian lover, Roxana, the dancer. He eventually abandons his wife, Pembe and his three children without any income to survive on.

Adem’s wife Pembe, who is a determined and yet vulnerable character, feels just as displaced and disoriented as her husband. She finds a job in a hair-dressing saloon and finds solace in writing letters to her identical twin sister, Jamila.

Jamila, never marries – because her honour has been besmirched when kidnapped as a young girl through no fault of her own – and is living secluded in a remote place in Turkey. She becomes a midwife and a healer. She has a psychic connection with her identical twin sister and is an important character in the plot’s twist at the end of the story.

With her husband having run away with another woman, leaving her to bring-up their three children, Pembe establishes an innocent, secret relationship with a Greek cook, which will lead to her demise and lead her son Eskender to Shrewsbury prison after committing his irreparable crime by killing her for it. Eskender finds it difficult to embrace two cultures at once. He is a sympathetic character as an adult, when he is tortured by guilt and remorse and feels repentant for committing his heinous crime. Previously he was a confused teenager trying hard to find the right path on his own. He was young, without a father to guide him and with a mother who spoilt him and called him her “sultan”.

Eskender considers his mother’s irreproachable friendship with a man to be a crime and only by killing her can he restore the Toprak family honour, since his father will not undertake this task himself. Pembe has to die like her eldest sister, Hediye, who died, hanged by her family, many years earlier, for having eloped and then been forsaken by a young medical assistant.

In the novel, the author underlines that for some communities the only answer to restoring the family’s honour is death and that this code of honour is carried forward from generation to generation.

Honour has several themes: patriarchal societies, immigration, the search of identity, multiculturalism and honour code as well as honour killing – which today is still alive and well in various tribal communities all over the world. Just as domestic violence against women is also increasingly spreading all over the eastern and western world.

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