Silk. Alessandro Baricco

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We read Silk, Alessandro Baricco’s third and very brief novel published in 1996 by Rizzoli. With Lands of Grass written in 1991 and Ocean Sea written in 1993, Silk concludes a sort of trilogy about dreams and for dreamers made of subtle, almost imperceptible, references that link their plots and characters. 

Between France and Japan 

Silk carries us away along an indefinite journey of the heart and of the soul between France and Japan, during a historical moment of great change; a period when European society was about to adapt to a new emerging economical, social and political environment toward full industrialization: 

“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.”

The consequent cultural atmosphere defines a new way of thinking that, on the one hand, affirms the power of human beings over their destiny, their faith in their capabilities in improving and reshaping their environment with the help of experimentation, knowledge and innovation and, on the other hand, it reveals its constrictions. 

About dreams and dreamers 

This is the setting where a story of an impossible dream takes place: that of Hervé Joncour, a young French silk merchant who while travelling in far away Japan meets the mysterious concubine of Hara Kei, one of the local barons. A splendid girl who makes him undertake daunting journeys back and forth between Europe and Asia, between reality and dream. 

The historical setting emphasis the nineteenth-century enthusiasm. However Joncour’s pursuit of evasion seems to tell us also much about its constriction and the aesthetic changes it implies. So it recalls the narrative tension of The Golden Bowl by Henry James or The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton to then focus and develop the theme of dream

Reading Silk 

The tale of Joncour’s and the mysterious concubine’s lives assumes the form of a love story to narrate the world of dreamers in an age that was about to reshape their modern role: 

“He was, besides, one of those men who like to witness their own life, considering any ambition to live it inappropriate. It should be noted that these men observe their fate the way most men are accustomed to observe a rainy day.”

The reason of Jouncur’s apparent passivity is hardly related to the lack of stimuli. On the contrary it lies, as it will for other characters created by Baricco in primis Danny Boodman T.D. Lemon Novecento, in his great sensitivity and capability to imagine the infinitive directions his life might take. The impossible love for the mysterious concubine exemplifies the European romantic and decadent soul in its constant pursuit of evasion and absolute principles.
It tells us a lot about the power and the value of dreams; about how, although they may lead towards dangerous paths, they are nonetheless necessary and fundamental to any individual experience. This book seems to explain their reasons to us with great sensitivity and tenderness through a poetic and rhythmic prose. It runs fluid, reflecting almost onomatopoeically the novel’s title. Remarkable, do read it if you get a chance!