Silk by Alessandro Baricco was almost a book that I didn’t manage to read before it was due at the library, and, having risked the dreaded late-fees just enough to get through it, I can’t entirely say that I’m glad I did.
Don’t get me wrong. The book isn’t bad. But it’s not really complimentary to say that the best thing about the book is that it’s short – my edition came in, literally, at 97 pages, most of which weren’t even full pages and had huge margins. I read the book because I’d seen the movie (which I won’t review because, much like the book, there really just isn’t a whole lot to say) with Michale Pitt and, seeing as how he’s been my favorite actor since his glory days on Dawson’s Creek, I figured I’d go ahead and read the book.
The story focuses on Herve Joncour, a silk breeder in a small French town, who has to travel to Japan when the European silk-worm crop comes down with some kind of disease that prevents them from producing the silk that has become such a high commodity. However, at this point in time Japan was essentially closed to all foreigners, and was especially not available for those pursuing Japanese silkworms. And so Herve’s journeys (there are four throughout the book) to Japan grow more and more dangerous as the political situation in the country becomes more and more dire. While in Japan, Herve falls into infatuation with the young female conquest of the man who assists him in getting his silk off the Japanese black market. The two never talk, but manage to have one brief sexual encounter that lingers with Herve for the rest of his life.
The book was told in a series of short chapters, most of which weren’t even a full page, and the book had a lot of repetition that normally I would have liked (it seems like the travel scene where he travels to Japan is literally copied and pasted each time he has to go back) but that I felt was tedious and overdone in a book this short. I’m sure that Baricco was just trying to go for a specific feel, but I’m not sure the one he achieved was the one he was trying to accomplish.
The best part of this book is, quite obviously as it is pretty much the central focus, the affair between Herve and his Japanese mistress (who, ironically, isn’t Japanese. Her eyes are *always* described as being non-slanted and her skin is *always* described as being white, but the story of why she’s with the black market dealers and what her actual ethnicity is isn’t ever revealed) and, more specifically, the way that this affair changes his relationship to his wife. **SPOILERS** His wife, left at home constantly as Herve looks for silk, eventually catches on to his not-so-subtle affair and, in the end, is the reason that Herve feels like he can bring any closure to the situation. After finding a note written from the mistress to Herve (which says, in Japanese, “come back or I shall die”) she takes the time to write him another letter, getting help with the Japanese from a local brothel owner. In the letter, she describes a really intense physical and sexual encounter in great detail, and at the end, speaks of how Herve should erase her from his mind, that the two can never be together. When Herve finds the letter, he is originally under the assumption that it’s actually from his mistress, but before too long he realizes that his wife is the actual author and is fully aware of her knowledge of what’s happening. It’s heartbreaking for Herve, but even more so for the reader, because the truth about the letter isn’t revealed to the reader until it’s revealed to Herve. **END SPOLIERS**
All in all, the book wasn’t all that great. The length kept any of the characters from being fully developed, and the short-sentence, constant-repetition style over so few pages makes the book a halting read. There were a few good passages scattered about, and the informational bits about the silk trade and silk farming process were full of new information. But do yourself a favor and skip this rather wimpy little half-story. If you really insist, watch the movie – its on the same level content wise, but at least it’s preeeeety. Happy reading!
UPDATE: I wanted to give Silk the small amount of credit it has coming to it by posting one of the passages that was truly the most beautiful, in my opinion. Talk about writing to get you all hot and bothered!
“Until in the end I shall kiss you on the heart, because I want you, I shall bite the skin that throbs on your heart, because I want you, and with your heart between my lips you will be mine, forever, if you do not believe me, open your eyes, my master, and beloved, and look at me, it is I.”