Sunday, September 12, 2010

Baricco, Silk- a review

Yes I know, this book has been out for quite some time (since 1999, I believe) but I hadn't read it until now. The thing is that I generally refuse to read books, fiction in particular, in a language I know, when the book is translated. This is particularly true for Italian.

So. I just got hold of a bunch of books in the original, courtesy of the Newton Public Library here in the Boston area. Bostonians: you too can get 'em if you live in the area covered by the Minuteman Library Network. Just order 'em online through the catalog on their site and have them delivered to your branch.

As I was saying. This is the first work of fiction I've read by Alessandro Baricco, a very successful author and cultural figure, for lack of a better term. So I got three or four of his novels and started with Silk. It's a little thing, about 100 pages in the Bur paperback edition, and many of those pages have white spaces. OK, out with it, Eggplant. I was quite disappointed.

Stylistically, the novella is fairly original, reading something like an extended prose poem, or series of prose poems. I like prose poems; I like Baudelaire and Leopardi. But I didn't like this. The plot involves one Herve' Joncour, a young silkworm merchant who travels from France to the newly-opened Japan in the mid-19th century to get the eggs for the silk factories of his town. Herve' is married to a lovely lady, but like countless other men, is not fully appreciative of his wife. He meets a young woman in Japan who "does not have Oriental eyes," and falls in love. The wife is on to him. He eventually returns to the roost (also like countless other men), but after a shortish while the wife is taken with a "brain fever," something that happened rather too often in the 19th century, and dies, of course. There is a plot twist toward the end involving a purportedly erotic letter he receives in Japanese. I did not find the letter erotic, I found it intrusive and mildly embarrassing.

OK: here is what I think it "means." In a world tragically dominated by war-like conditions and (rather too often) outright war, love, which should be the opposite of war as suggested by the old hippie slogans, could be the antidote to this sorry state of affairs. But it's not. And one of the reasons is that we are always hankering after the Other, which in this case is the girl in Japan who is actually (semi-spoiler!) just a manifestation of his wife, and that's why she doesn't have "Oriental eyes." But Herve' doesn't realize that. Or maybe he does, too late, and that's why he puts "helas" (French for "alas") on her tombstone. Got it? The nature of the letter also bears out this interpretation, but I won't go into that because it would be a real spoiler, and I don't want to be mean.

As for the life-as-war aspects, you will see it in the fighting that happens in Japan during the time-frame of the work, and in the early mentions of Abraham Lincoln fighting a Civil War the end of which "he would never live to see" (actually he did, if you consider Lee's surrender at Appomattox the end of the war) and Flaubert's writing of Salammbo, another novel with an exotic setting (this time featuring the Punic Wars and Carthage) which I have not read and am not going to read despite the fact that I was a French minor. So there.

Baricco is a man of real, genuine intellectual and cultural vitality, not to mention talent, and thus needs to be reckoned with. But unfortunately he gets carried away by his sincere admiration of the Big Guys e.g. Melville, Conrad, even ole Homer. To the point he thinks he's in their league. And this may be a tiny bit cruel, but he's not. He's just derivative. Well, not just, but too derivative. I don't know what makes a book or a movie work, but this doesn't. It could have, but it doesn't, at least not for me. Lots of people like it. Baricco, who was a philosophy student (as I was, also) may think he can graft Really Big Ideas onto a work of fiction, like Melville and Conrad, but he can't. Not in this work, anyway.

So. His problem is this sort of epic overreaching. By wanting to be great, he fails to be even good (enough.) I've started in on Ocean sea, and so far it appears to be unreadable (which is not a flaw that Silk has, au contraire.) Maybe I'll slosh along (appropriately watery metaphor), or maybe I'll jump ship. Or maybe I'll read Moby Dick a fourth time, still in awe after all these years that it was produced by a thirty-year-old with little education to speak of ("for a whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.") I'll keep you posted.

(In the picture, Alessandro, who is not up there with Joseph and Herman, alas)