This novel was the last 2009 read for the International Fiction Book Group of New Orleans. At that meeting, I had just 30 pages to read the book and wasn't able to finish until late December.
This novel is set in Lima, Peru in the 1990s. The event that inspired this novel was a terrorist takeover of the Japanese Embassy in Peru in 1997.
(A little personal aside: my mom met one of the real hostages, when he was a Naval cadet. He is now the Vice-President of Peru'.)
In the novel, the setting is the Vice-President's home. The terrorists were trying to capture the Japanese-Peruvian president at a party held in honor of Japanese businessman, Hosokawa. The president stayed home to watch a soap opera. (In Latin America, soap operas last 2 or 3 months and are very addicting. My father lovves a couple of them.)
The terrorist are disappointed to capture only the vice-president and an opera singer, Roxanne Coss, and other foreigners.
During the seige, the men are really challenged. Many are used to busy lives and have a hard time keeping themselves entertained. Hosokawa just can't believe that his days are so slooow. The vice-president, feeling that he has to be a perfect host, starts to notice how much housework there is to be done, especially when everyone starts to throw trash on the floor and be generally messy. Coss acts like a diva, but she can get away with it, because she sings and bewitches everyone with her voice. When everyone starts getting hungry, they expect Coss to cook, and she haughtily declines. One of the Frenchmen volunteers to be the cook and teaches some other hostages and terrorists to help him out.
Everyone is surprised how young some of the terrorists were. Many were teens who could barely read in Spanish and some spoke more Quehua than Spanish.
Hosokawa's translator, Gen, was the only person who didn't rest. A gifted linguist, he spent his days translating conversations into Spanish, Japanese, Russian, French, English, German, and another one, I think.
Gen's skills interested Carmen, one of the young terrorists. She "wished that she could see inside his mind. She wondered if it would look crowded with words, compartments of language carefully fitted on top of each other. Her own brain, by comparison, would be an empty closet."
Carmen didn't have low self esteem, but she realizes that her life experiences were limited. She barely read Spanish, had not traveled much, except for this takeover. When she heard the Peruvians or Gen talk about art, music, culture, or books, she knew nothing about them. However, Gen realized her quick mind and started to teach her to read Spanish. She was learning a lot and desired to start on English.
This novel won the 2002 Orange Prize for Fiction. and 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.
I liked this novel. I enjoyed reading about the men having nothing to do and learned about music.