Quietly beautiful

Silk
by Alessandro Baricco
translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein

This is a slight volume of short chapters (some extremely short) and lots of white space. This, coupled with Baricco’s use of repetition and sparse language adds up to a sense that what you are reading is closer to poetry than novel.

The story is at once vast and simple. In 19th century France, the town of Lavilledieu relies on silk production for most of its income. When European silkworms start dying, Hervé Joncour accepts the job of travelling ever further abroad to buy silkworm eggs for his town.

In the hands of another author this might have been the basis for a great adventure story with a real action hero at its centre. Silk is not an adventure story, it is a romance.

Hervé’s travels are described so briefly you almost forget what a capable, worldly man he must be. In many ways, this is the tale of the two women in his life. Hervé’s wife, Hèlene is devoted, saddened by their childless state and worried by her husband’s travels. Hervé loves her in a placid, steady sort of way. But when he goes to Japan he falls suddenly and desperately for a woman he can never touch or speak to – the concubine of an important man. Hervé is entranced by her and starts to let his passion rule his previously detached judgment.

I think it’s possible that some people may reach the end of this book thinking that nothing really happened, where others will be amazed by how much was crammed in to so few words (I sit in the latter group). The style may also be offputting. I did take a few chapters to find it beautiful rather than jarring. But I ingested this volume in one gulp, which is testimony to how enjoyable it is.

Like most modern books, the cover is awash with praise and strings of adjectives. The one that comes closest to my experience is “subtle”. This is, for the most part at least, a very subtle book.

Published 2006 by Canongate
ISBN 978-1-8419-5835-4

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