Thursday, April 24, 2008

Thursday Book Report: Silk

It's funny how you come across books sometimes. Most of you know by now that my normal reading tastes fall into genre fiction and romance - but every once in a while I fall into something different. Willow and I were in the library last week and I was perusing the paperback selection when I came across Alessandro Baricco's slim novel, Silk. And if we are being completely honest, the slimness of the volume was what attracted me to it. I have a few large tomes on the go right now and wanted a quick diversion. And, at 132 judiciously spaced pages (honestly, I have read longer novellas and short stories!), it fit the bill.

Silk is translated from Italian, and has that somewhat dreamy and disconnected feeling I perceive from translated works. I don't mean that to be a criticism - I think it is all in the craft. When a writer creates his works, he chooses words for a reason - whether rhyme, alliteration, tempo, meter - and that simply cannot be duplicated in a translated work. But in this case, I think the disconnect serves the story well.

Herve Joncour is a young French man who makes his living by travelling to Africa every year to purchase silkworm eggs. He town makes it living through silk mills, so his is a very important job. In 1861 nearly all the silkworms in Europe and Africa were struck with disease, so in order to save his and his town's fortunes, Joncour travels all the way to Feudal Japan - across Europe, across Russia, into the Orient - all so that he can buy contraband silkworm eggs and smuggle them back to France.

He strikes up a wary business relationship with Hara Kei, a Japanese warlord, and as a matter of course falls for the man's non-Asian concubine. That in itself was never explained and having studied Japanese history, I found myself very interested in how an Occidental woman (as referred to) found her way to be a warlord's concubine. After many years of incidental contact with the woman, one day she presses a note into his hand, and it is not until he returns to France and finds a Japanese madam (again, not explained!) who can translate the note, does he find out she returns his feelings.

This is all complicated by the fact the Joncour has a very loving relationship with his wife - but due to the travel of his job, he only sees her for short stints during the year. This whole story is framed by rising tensions and the inevitable civil war in Japan - a place that Joncour travels to despite all the dangers to see a woman - a woman whose name he doesn't even know. It was a beautiful story, and had I had a straight block of time, I probably could have read it in a one hour sitting. This is the first novel I have read of Baricco's - and I have to say that his repetitive language and brief character descriptions (which were pleasing - brevity as opposed to over-flourishing) made the story almost seem like a fairy tale to me.

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