Reading Group No.4: ‘Silk’ by Alessandro Baricco


‘It was 1861. Flaubert was finishing Salammbô, electric light was still a hypothesis and Abraham Lincoln, on the other side of the ocean, was fighting a war whose end he would not see’.

Silk, Alessandro Baricco, pg. 21

For my book group this month we decided to read Silk by Alessandro Baricco. I will confess that I wasn’t interested in this choice at all and was very reluctant to buy the book (that is why I opted for the cheaper Kindle version). I was also reluctant to read the book and have, therefore, been putting it off until the last minute. I can safely say that this probably isn’t the best start or attitude to have when beginning a new book, but I feel like I have a good sense of what I like and what I don’t like. Silk fell into this latter category and I can say, with certainty, that after giving the book a try I was right!

Silk is set in mid-nineteenth century France during the time of a major epidemic that threatens to wipe out the silk trade in Europe. Hervé Joncour, a silkworm breeder, has to travel as far as Japan to illegally buy and smuggle silkworms back to France. His business is with one of the local barons, Hara Kei, and whilst on his many visits, Hervé Joncour becomes fascinated with a woman who does not possess ‘Oriental eyes’. What ensues is a love affair of sorts, although they do not speak to one another. Their affair is conducted through many longing glances and cryptic messages in Japanese, which Hervé Joncour has translated for him by a Japanese woman back in France.

‘It hurt him to hear, finally, Hervé Joncour say softly

‘I never even heard her voice.’

And after a while:

‘It’s a strange grief.”

Silk, Alessandro Baricco, pg.107

Although I wasn’t too keen on the story, I did find the writing of Silk quite beautiful. At only 132 pages, it is a short and almost poetic read. Baricco makes use of repetition – the journey to Japan by road, rail and boat becomes like a familiar refrain. He also uses very simplistic, yet effective language. I think it is this simplicity that makes Silk a haunting read. It becomes less a story about a love affair but more a tale of regret – a regret not just for Hervé Joncour’s own inability to act but for his ability to stay with his wife who is obviously aware of his own dissatisfaction. But my sympathies didn’t lie with Hervé Joncour, instead I felt more for his wife who knew she would never be enough for her husband.

‘You know, monsieur, I think that she wished, more than any other thing, to be that woman. You can’t understand it’.

Silk, Alessandro Baricco, pg.130

I think what frustrated me most was the representation of women in this novel. They either appear as an object of lust or admiration (as in the girl whose does not have ‘Oriental eyes’) or as women whose only wish is to please their husbands (as in Hervé Joncour’s wife).

Aside from the beautiful writing nothing else in Silk really appealed to my interests. I am glad to have tried something more out of my comfort zone but I don’t think I will be exploring any of Alessandro Baricco’s other works.


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