Monday, November 8, 2010

Silk by Alessandro Baricco

Novels don't always fare well in translation. Take the Harry Potter books, for example. For whatever reason, Gallimard decided to let its translator paraphrase big sections of the stories for no reason whatsoever and vice versa. Question mark? Silk is an Italian novel that in my opinion must have lost a LOT in translation based on the advance praise on the back cover, lauding its hypnotic language and enthralling story.

Not so much for me.

The hypnotic quality of the prose came close to putting me to sleep, to be honest. Baricco evidently repeated verbatim different sections of his narrative when similar events reoccurred, including the main character's repeated journeys to Japan to procure silkworm eggs (hence the title). At first it was a charming representation of how compartmentalized and routine his life is, but then it got boring quickly.

The plot also left me cold. Herve Joncour, silkworm buyer in mid-nineteenth-century southern France, must find a new supply of eggs since the Mediterranean producers have all got the same problem: an incurable disease that kills the worms and produces substandard silk or none at all. Pushed by his partners, Joncour embarks on a long trip to Japan to purchase the eggs, where he deals with a feudal Japanese lord who has a European woman as one of his friends with benefits (the exact nature of their relationship is never divulged). Joncour becomes obsessed with her in his quiet way, drifting away from his wife and clouding his own thoughts.

The rather bitter ending does nothing to redeem the short novel, but instead prompts the reader to be grateful his or her life is not quite so bleak. Thank goodness. I'd pass this one over.

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