Silk by Alessandro Baricco

Silk by Alessandro Baricco. French title: Soie 1996

I’d heard of Silk before and as I was in an Italian literature mood, I figured I’d try it. According to the blurb at the back of my edition, it’s a cult novel by one of the most gifted Italian writers of his generation. Hmm. Not my kind of literary religion then.

The novel is set between France (the Vivarais, in Ardèche) and Japan around 1860. Let me tell you the thin plot. Hervé Joncour lives in a village whose main industry is silk. When European silkworms die from an unknown disease, Hervé Joncour is sent to Japan to bring back larvae for the business to survive. The villagers pay for his trip and he needs to come back with living larvae.

Silk is hard to describe. Hervé Joncour goes back and forth between France and Japan. Discovering Japan is a life-changing experience, probably but nothing is said. You just assume. It’s a novel with a strange character you don’t get attached to. He’s always called Hervé Joncour, never Hervé. It gives the impression of a man who never loses his tie and walks with a broom in his back. There are some descriptions of Japanese customs but you watch them without a clue, just like the main character.

The style is ristretto like an Italian coffee. I guess it’s supposed to be powerful. It didn’t work for me although I’m usually a good audience for this. I love short sentences with an unusual use of the language. The writer needs to be very good for me to enjoy paragraph-long sentences. Short books composed with short sentences can hit you like a fist. But it’s the prerogative of excellent writers as it is hard to say a lot in a few pages. Here, the effects seem fabricated. For example, each time Hervé Joncour travels, Baricco writes the same paragraph to describe his itinerary, like in fairy tales. Great idea on paper but it sounded fake like a trick learnt in a writing class. See:

Il passa la frontière près de Metz, traversa le Wurtemberg et la Bavière, pénétra en Autriche, atteignit par le train Vienne puis Budapest et poursuivit jusqu’à Kiev. Il parcourut à cheval vingt mille kilomètres de steppe russe, franchit les monts Oural, entra en Sibérie, voyagea pendant quarante jours avant d’atteindre le lac Baïkal, que les gens de l’endroit appelait : mer. Il descendit le cours du fleuve Amour, longeant la frontière chinoise jusqu’à l’Océan, resta onze jours dans le port de Sabirk en attendant qu’un navire de contrebandiers hollandais l’amène à Capo Teraya, sur la côte ouest du Japon He crossed the border near Metz, walked through Württemberg and Bayern, entered in Austria, reached Vienna and Budapest by train, rode twenty thousand kilometers through the Russian steppe, crossed the Ural mountains, entered in Siberia, and traveled forty days before reaching the Baikal lake that local people called: sea. He flew down the Amour river along the Chinese border till the Ocean, stayed eleven days in the Sabirk harbor until a ship of Dutch smugglers brought him to Capo Terya, on the West coast of Japan. 

I didn’t buy the Japanizing paraphernalia either. I found it a bit clichéd, the landlord, the geisha, the secret traditions. I also thought the double silent love story really hard to believe. Two women silently pining for dull Hervé Joncour? Come on!

I suppose it’s a go/no-go kind of book, like a Paulo Coelho. Either you fall for it or you don’t. Well, I didn’t but I understand that some do. I felt no emotion when it is clear that its aim was beauty and emotion. I expected better than that from such a praised writer. Has anyone read it?

  1. May 21, 2012 at 7:22 pm

    I have read it but such a long time ago. Maybe ten years? I remember that I liked it a lot and wanted to read more by him but didn’t. It’s possible I wouldn’t like it anymore. I avguely remember the repetitive structure, I think I even liked that a lot. It didn’t feel artificial.
    I saw a movie based on one of his novels and that was soo boring. The Legend of 1900.

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    • May 21, 2012 at 8:16 pm

      It was published in 1996, so it’s very possible that you read it 10 years ago. I understand that you liked it a lot.My reaction to it in French is: “Bof, sans plus”.

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      • May 21, 2012 at 8:24 pm

        I guess I just read it at the right moment but he didn’t make it into my “favourite Italian authors”. It’s like a fable really. Btw I ordered the Arpino but in French. The Italian is oop.

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        • May 21, 2012 at 8:42 pm

          You’re right, it’s the kind of book you need to read at the right moment. I agree with the word “fable” too.

          I hope you’ll like the Arpino and I’m sure looking forward to reading your review.

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  2. May 21, 2012 at 11:12 pm

    Hmmm, while I have seen this book about, I am now no longer interested in it! I do like a story where I feel close to the protagonists and experience their emotional honesty. I don’t have to have sympathetic characters, but I do prefer to be right up behind their eyes.

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    • May 21, 2012 at 11:17 pm

      Maybe you’d like it. It’s hard to say. After all, it’s a huge success and it has very good ratings.
      Perhaps I’m just too difficult.

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  3. May 22, 2012 at 12:02 pm

    I recently brought this second hand ,but not read it or anything by him but feeling there a new English translation of one of his other books due out later this year so should try to get to it before that comes out ,all the best stu

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    • May 22, 2012 at 9:06 pm

      Let me know if you read it, I’ll be glad to read your review.

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  4. Alex in Leeds
    May 22, 2012 at 2:33 pm

    I actually really enjoyed this one but it was because I quickly fell into the rhythm of it being like a old fashioned fairytale with its own stock phrases fitted in where you might expect ‘once upon a time’ and its own repetitions where you might expect an action being completed seven times to grant a wish.

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    • May 22, 2012 at 9:08 pm

      Hello, thanks for visiting.
      I understand why you liked it and I agree with your comparison to fairytales. It’s not a bad book per se, far from it, it didn’t work for me. But I’m not a good audience for fairytales, perhaps that’s why I didn’t enjoy it.

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  5. May 22, 2012 at 7:12 pm

    Doesn’t sound like my sort of book at all–though I could see it making a good film.

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    • May 22, 2012 at 9:11 pm

      Yeah, I guess you’d better not rush to the next book store to get it.
      I agree with you, it could be a great film with wonderful landscapes. I’d imagine it with very few dialogues and many images with people moving slowly. Hmm. Auteuil could be a great Hervé Joncour and Sandrine Bonnaire could be a great Hélène.

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  6. May 22, 2012 at 10:11 pm

    I’m with Caroline on this one. I read it probably 8-9 years ago, vaguely remember liking it despite its faults, but then found a few attempts to read subsequent Barrico coming to a disappointed nothing. Your Paulo Coelho analogy resonates, but I remember thinking a bit better of Silk than that. Anyway, it’s on the shelf, it can be read in a wink, so maybe I’ll revisit it.

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    • May 23, 2012 at 10:27 pm

      Ok, another mild response this this book.
      I wonder why there is so much fuss about it.
      It’s not the literary discovery of the century.

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  7. leroyhunter
    May 23, 2012 at 3:09 pm

    I read this when it came out, not sure why, I presume it got glowing reviews that lead me to it. I enjoyed it but I remember thinking it a bit twee. Anyway, I’ve never had the slightest urge to reread it or try more Baricco…

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    • May 23, 2012 at 10:33 pm

      Despite the glowing reviews, all that glitters is not gold.
      I see you weren’t enthusiastic either.
      I found it falling into an easy pattern and at the same time aiming at Literature with a capital L.

      PS thanks for adding “twee” to my vocabulary. I’ll try to remember it.

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  8. June 15, 2012 at 2:23 pm

    Twee is a brilliant word, and very important for British English.

    I haven’t read this, mostly as my impression (which you’ve reinforced) was always that it was lit-lite, accessible literature. When I want light reading I reach for genre, for cheap thrills that know they’re entertainments. I’m fine with highbrow and lowbrow, but as the song says “don’t mess with Mr In-Between”.

    Many others have obviously loved it though, and I’m not saying they’re wrong. There’s no reason my tastes should be their’s.

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    • June 15, 2012 at 9:03 pm

      I’m not saying it’s bad, it doesn’t deserve such praise, in my opinion. “Mr In-Between”, that’s a great definition of my impression. Light stuff aiming at highbrow and failing.
      Like you, I like books to be honest: don’t try to show off as profound literature when it’s entertainment.

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