Silk by Alessandro Baricco
Now, I was completely captivated by this novella. Blown away actually, and yes, I said novella because that is what it is in the truest literary sense of the word as the genre has long been defined. The protagonist of the story, Hervé Joncour, after being sidetracked from the military career his father wanted for him, becomes a silkworm merchant. Our story takes place in 1861, France, in a little town called Lavilledieu. The town’s prosperity is often left to entrepreneur Baldabiou who owns and operates several silk manufacturing factories. He sees nothing but dollar signs woven into the fabric, yet has become concerned with the quality of the silkworm eggs coming into France. So he flat out commissions Hervé with the task of travelling to Japan to procure uncontaminated eggs. It is a treacherous and monotonous journey, and Hervé’s wife Helene is not pleased that they will be separated for so long, but the village’s existence hinges on the silk production, so she cannot argue the matter. She remains dutiful and devoted always in the face of adversity, and adversity comes to her marriage often in the story. I won’t reveal the plot because it is such a sort book.
What I found particularly compelling was the spare use of motivational details and the extensive use of repetition for effect. The novella is written in poetic prose, heavy on narrative summary and thin on dialog, chapters are often less than a page in length, but they pack a powerful punch.
Hervé’s many journeys to Japan are tedious and treacherous as he makes his way through Europe, Russia, the Siberian steppe, and the mountains of China. Every journey is described in exactly the same way using the exact same words every time with only one deviation: each time the locals call the village of Shirakawa something different, which represents their change in attitude over the years, which mirrors the Japanese political state. This is in direct contrast to Hervé’s return trip to France, which is dealt with in exactly the same way, only there is no deviation in the wording. Hervé returns on the same day each time, just in time for mass, and Helen is there to meet him as always. Life in this small town goes on, and Hervé and Helen pick up as if they had not been parted. But emotionally, the chasm between the two lovers becomes wider and deeper with each passing journey.
On Hervé’s first journey, he meets the village chieftain Hara Kei. Kei respects Hervé for his honesty and his business savvy, so he invites him for tea. The tea service is a rather uncomfortable affair and is where Hervé first encounters Kei ‘s mistress: a girl with eyes not the shape of Oriental eyes. They exchange a gaze and a very powerful and telling sip from the same tea cup, and from that moment on Hervé becomes obsessively infatuated with this woman he doesn’t know and will never know.
Hervé never has any kind of physical interaction with the woman and sees her only briefly for the short time he is in the village procuring the silk worm eggs, but the fantasy he has about her cuts deep into this relationship with his wife. In one scene he returns from Japan and makes love to Helene “impatiently” and she is thrown to tears. And this is another interesting bit about the story, we never really know much about Helene other than she is very devoted and very modest. Even though she is in quite a bit of pain, her loneliness, her inability to have children, and her husband’s emotional infidelity wear heavy on her in so few words. Even so, Hervé’s love for his wife and his devotion to her cannot be questioned. When he receives a mysterious letter written in Japanese at the end of the novella, which is sexually charged and nothing less than desperate, we discover that what appeared so simple on the surface -- the marital dynamic of two individuals -- was much more complicated than we had imagined from their life as it is related to us from a distance. The spare writing certainly does not lack emotion, and the fact that the characters are fully actualized in so few words is quite amazing in itself. In this case, less IS so much more. The use of objective detail to articulate the nature of obsession is genius, if you ask me.
As for the movie, don’t bother. You won’t understand the story completely unless you read the author’s words and experience the poetic approach he takes first hand. I highly recommend this to novella fans: the hard-core appreciators of the subtle, the darkly romantic, and the often-overlooked true literary novella form.
Cheryl Anne Gardner
This is a repost for novella month.