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Alessandro Baricco - Silk

Alessandro Baricco - Silk

In 1861, an epidemic swept Europe. Silkworms, formerly a source of great wealth, were diseased, the eggs rotten, and nobody knew why. Lesser quality eggs were to be found in the Middle East, or - with great danger - in China. But the greatest eggs were to be found in Japan, a country all but isolated from the world, voluntarily secluding itself from everyone and everything. Recently, a small port has been opened by the government, for very limited trading. Silkworm eggs are not allowed. Herve Joncour has been commissioned to travel from France to Japan, a three-month long expedition, to smuggle eggs from Hara Kei, a famous - infamous - smuggler, thief and warlord. In Japan, he falls in love with a girl whose eyes are not slanted.

Baricco's novella is a beautifully written piece, dripping with magic and charm. Sentences are short, sharp and insightful, yet they focus upon events and descriptions that would not normally warrant a mention. We never learn the colour of Joncour's hair, or how tall he is, yet we are told the colour of the handkerchief he wears in his suit. There is a strain of magic realism running through the novel. One character, with no reason given, stops speaking. Baldabiou, the man who introduced the Japanese silkworms into France, speaks with the wisdom of the world, unable to communicate in the mundane way of ordinary people. 1861 is `the year Flaubert was completing Salammbo, electric light remained hypothetical, and Abraham Lincoln, beyond the Ocean, was fighting a war of which he was not to see the finish'. By using short sentences, Baricco is able to make grand statements, quiet pronouncements and immensely small insights into people and places. It is an interesting technique, and one that is used to great affect. Joncour's wife is described as, `She was a tall woman, she moved slowly, she had long black hair that she never put up. She had a most beautiful voice.' That is what we learn of her early on in the novel, that is how she stays: elegant, soft, feminine.

When Joncour is in Japan, the novel's language becomes more flowery, the sentences longer and with greater detail. Perhaps this is because Joncour is familiar with his own land, yet an alien to this new country, so the narrator needs to be more descriptive. As the years pass, he becomes more familiar with Hara Kei and his township, and the lavish details decrease and slow until they are no more. There is a young girl, nameless, voiceless, and captivated with the Frenchman. They avoid eye contact one year, then share glances the next. A note is passed, then another. The courtship is long, ultimately fruitless, and achingly beautiful. Whole pages - of a 100 page novel - are devoted to her grace, her physiognomy, her manner. When he first sets eyes upon her, the narrative becomes disjointed, as though the narrator - and Joncour - is too shocked by this beauty for coherency. There is a passage, a dense, long paragraph with description and internalised thought, but then:

Without the smallest movement,
That young girl,
Opened her eyes.

The narrative resumes, but Joncour is shaken. Love blossoms, for both, instantly.

There are other characters, mostly in France. There are to be considered more as aspects of the story than real characters. They exist to help clarify - or obscure - the mysteries of Japan and the nameless girl. The nine months when Joncour is home in France are covered in a page, the week in Japan laid out in detail. His life revolves around his trip, as does the narrative. The affect is nothing short of amazing.

The ending is both sad and lovely at the same time, and not to be lessened by the description of `bittersweet'. The magic remains until the very last page, and stays once the book has been closed. For Joncour, and the other Frenchmen, Japan is a mystery, an enigma, a riddle. For the novel, it is the same: something to be described with loving detail for its wonders, but never to be understood.




Italian Authors


Links kindly provided by The Dalkey Archive Press' anthology, Best European Fiction 2010

Il Club degli Autori
Ellin Selae Associazione Letteraria
The Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities
Il Primo Amore
Vibrisse, Bolletino