When I used to work in a bookshop, women customers would order this book in furtive undertones, for they knew that they were asking for the illicit. Appropriate, perhaps, for a novella concerned with such a sensual trade. There's a pointed moment in this tale when the hero's wife declines to wear a silk garment due to modesty. When Baldabiou arrives in Lavilledieu, he throws a silk scarf down on the mayor's desk and asks him what it is. "Woman's stuff" replies the mayor automatically. However, Baldabiou is determined to prove that there is money in silk, and so builds a prosperous series of mills in Lavilledieu. It is he who also transforms Herve Joncour's life. The mayor has determined that his son will make a life for himself in the military, but Baldabiou is the real power in the town, and the mayor needs little persuading of his son's new vocation. Due to the pebrine epidemic afflicting the European silk hatcheries, Baldabiou is forced to come up with a novel plan. He has heard of an island on the other side of the world which has been fiercely isolationist until a few years ago. It is home to the finest silk in the world. Since it has been cut off from the rest of the world, Baldabiou reasons, its silk worms are unlikely to have suffered from pebrine.
So Joncour is sent as Baldabiou's emissary to Japan, to a nation that he knows nothing about. He does know that exporting silk worm eggs from Japan is illegal though. It is not the only law that he will transgress there... For when he meets Hara Kei, he also encounters Kei's concubine. Kei appears to be a kind of warlord, and not a man to be crossed. However, Joncour cannot help but be drawn to the mysterious concubine. She resembles a pretty bird in a cage, pleading to be freed. And her eyes are not those of an Oriental... Maybe Baricco is trying to transcend the East/West 'opposites attract', the 'seductive East' cliché here by making the concubine appear to be of European origin. Although this does seem to be a hint of an illicit trade in human beings, or that Eastern malaise of kidnap which Ishiguro has written of in relation to his new novel, 'When we were Orphans'. For a while, Joncour makes his yearly visit to Japan, seemingly getting closer to the concubine all the while, yet still returns home to his wife in time for High Mass. But Joncour's foreign trips may be numbered, for a young scientist named Louis Pasteur may have a cure for pebrine within his grasp...
This is a highly sensual novella, incredibly economic in its use of words. There is a poetic quality to the form, with each episode seemingly embodying a verse. In some ways, it resembles a ballad. There are certain repetitions, certain cycles which reflect the ballad form, especially the manner in which each of Joncour's trips is related. The mysterious Baldabiou could well play the role of aged mentor in this hero's journey. Joncour does goes to the end of the world, after all, and is seduced by a magical fairy. I would have thought that 'Silk' would work brilliantly as an audio book. The brevity of the prose is a delight. This subtlety of tone allows the reader room to breathe and imagine.
Joncour's name may be steeped in romance, but is it his heart that is breaking?
AuthorTrek rating: 9/10
Kevin Patrick Mahoney