Thursday, March 11, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Silk by Alessandro Baricco

Herve Joncour is a French silk breeder who lives in the small town of Lavilledieu. It is 1861 and epidemics have decimated the silkworm eggs in Europe, so Joncour travels once a year to Egypt and Syria to obtain healthy eggs. Joncour's friend, Baldabiou, tells of the extraordinary silk of Japan and encourages Joncour to travel "to the end of the world" to obtain Japanese silkworm eggs. Joncour travels to Japan four times, each time leaving behind his faithful and loving wife Helene. He always takes the same route, travelling by train, horseback and ship. Japan is closed to the world at this time and Joncour must deal secretly with a local Japanese baron named Hara Kei. While negotiating with Hara Kei, Joncour is enamored by Kei's concubine with "eyes [that] did not have an Oriental slant." We learn nothing more about the concubine than this smallest of physical details. She neither speaks to nor touches Joncour, yet he falls instantly in love with this beautiful woman. He believes his love to be reciprocated and looks for her during his three subsequent visits. Civil war tears Hara Kei's village apart and forever separates Joncour from the enigmatic woman he believes he loves. Joncour no longer travels and settles down to a quiet village life with his wife until, one day, a letter arrives covered with Japanese ideograms that look like
a catalog of little bird tracks, compiled with meticulous folly. It was surprising to think that in fact they were signs, that is, the ashes of an incinerated voice.
The peacefulness of Joncour's life from that moment on is tinged with the sadness of unfulfillment.

Silk is a simple story, told simply, using language that makes you want to weep. Silk is a novella, but the language and pacing make this little book seem more like poetry. What is left unsaid is just as important as what is said. The often sparse narration adds to the beauty and creates images that speak more intensely than a flurry of words. Take for instance the moment that Hara Kei's concubine looks at Joncour for the first time. She has been laying, perfectly still, with her head on Hara Kei's lap, her hair spread around her. Joncour and Hara Kei are negotiating when
without moving at all,
that girl
opened her eyes.
Herve Joncour did not pause, but instinctively lowered his gaze to her, and what he saw, without pausing, was that those eyes did not have an Oriental shape, and that they were fixed, with a disconcerting intensity, on him: as if from the start, from under the eyelids, they had done nothing else.
I am in awe of Baricco's ability to tell a story with such depth and emotion using such sparse language. His storytelling is like pulling the lightest of silks across your skin. It will make you shiver with delight. Read it.

Rating: 5 out of 5

Also reviewed by:
Eva at A Striped Armchair


  1. Beautiful review. I will have to look for this!

  2. Possibly I'm imagining things, but the way you described the story, the language, the simplicity and the beauty put me in mind of Banana Yoshimoto. And you know I like her a lot :P

  3. I'm so glad that you loved this one too! :D

  4. ds: I hope you read it. With your poetic sensibilities I think you will like it!

    Nymeth: I didn't really think about it, but there are similarities with Yoshimoto ... simple and beautiful.

    Eva: I read your review awhile ago and knew that this one would be a no-brainer for me :o)

  5. Great review, Terri! I've read this last year after buying it at a warehouse sale and loved it! I didn't do a book review, but I'm glad you did and I agree with your 5/5 rating. :D

  6. A friend of mine recommended this book to me a couple of years ago--even loaned it to me but I had to give it back unread because I just couldn't make time for it--but I do want to try again one of these days. It sounds like such an interesting and beautiful book. Thank you for your great review!

  7. Alice Teh: Isn't it great when you read a 5 out of 5? So satisfying!

    Literary Feline: If it helps, the book is really short. It only took me a few hours (maybe 3?) and I'm not a particularly fast reader since I tend to "dwell" while reading. Hope you read it sometime; I'll look forward to your thoughts.