My life is filled with weighty tomes at the moment (a fact not completely unrelated to my participation in the Chunkster Challenge," so I thought it might be refreshing to dip into a novella (a novella of fragmentary episodes, no less) while taking a break from "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall," "Suite Francaise," and the New-York-Review-of-Book-that-never-ends-even-when-I-devote-whole-days-to-reading-it. Upping the novelty level by another notch, I chose a novella by an author who is totally unfamiliar to me: "Silk" by Italian music critic Alessandro Baricco.

It is the tale of Herve Joncour, a French dealer in silkworm eggs. When a blight infects Europe's hatcheries, Joncour ventures farther afield, to the Middle East, to India, and finally, in desperation, to Japan, which is largely closed to foreign trade. In fact, the unrivaled quality of their silk is so important to Japan that the penalty for taking silkworm eggs out of the country is death. While there, Joncour meets the lordly Hara Kei, who supplies him with eggs, and falls in love with Hara Kei's mistress. The story that unfolds has been hailed by critics as a love-story of the highest caliber, but this love story does not seem to me to be between Joncour and the unknown, almost untouched Japanese woman, but rather between him and the wife with a velvet voice he comes home to again and again, heartsick for Japan.

The only thing that keeps me from rushing out and buying this stunningly precise, poetic little book for all my friends is its unfortunate old-school Orientalism, its idea that the East is to be desired as the Other that reveals the Self (it is significant, and painful to read, that what makes Joncour's Japanese love so striking for him is that her eyes "did not have an oriental slant," a detail which he repeats which almost ritualistic fervor). Sometimes the book seems ironically (am I just being hopeful?) aware of the failures of its Orientalism. Throughout Japan (the "end of the world") is referred to in the terms of its silk - so light and luxuriant that it disappears into pleasurable nothingness, invisibility that conveys mystique. But then, in a breathtaking passage, Joncour returns to Japan while it is torn by civil war, only to find that Hara Kei's estate (and in fact the whole town) has been burned to the ground: "Behind him lay a road eight thousand kilometres long. In front of him, nothing. He had a sudden glimpse of what he had long considered invisible. The end of the world" (59). How skillful the translation (by Guido Waldman) must be to convey this knot of double meanings.

And then my favorite passage, a signal through the flames of civil war, which conveys a sense of the condescension and delight of Joncour's love. While across the world in France, he receives a letter, in Japanese: "It looked like a catalogue of the footprints of little birds, fanatically meticulous in its compilation. It was surprising to consider that in fact these were signs, that is, the embers of a voice destroyed by fire" (76).

"Silk" (Italy, 1997)
Alessandro Baricco

Leave a Reply