A tangled web

Harvill Press

The breeding of silkworms was once a secret closely guarded by a Japanese elite. Western traders, such as Hervé Joncour, would rarely be offered even the fertilized eggs; when they were, it would be strictly at a certain stage of gestation, and the race would be on to return before the eggs hatched. In such a manner does Joncour spend his days, following the trade routes to the Orient and back on a timescale of seasons and years. Then he finds himself falling in love with the conccubine of Hara Kei, his Japanese contact. His whole world is seized with a great tremor, and when the dust has settled nothing will be the same again.

While writing Silk, Baricco probably had in mind that he was putting together a stylish novel; this self-consciousness has created a rather stylized one instead. The many quirks such as repetition and dwelling on details (the importance of which isn't immediately obvious) veer between being evocative to being annoying and back, passing through endearing on the way. More difficult to digest than that, though, is the lead character. Joncour is presented as a thoughtful, taciturn man: we are expected to believe that dark currents move beneath his show of repose. But none of them are ever really alluded to, still less rise above the waves. His emotional reactions are tangential: practically unemotional.

A love story where, owing to narrative constraints, the central character could easily be autistic seems an ill-advised proposition. Indeed, it's difficult to engage at all with Silk on a human level. Still, the conceit of a Western novel told in the cadences and rhythms of Japanese poetry is an exciting one, and there are many set pieces---Joncour's journey across south-east Europe and Asia---that have a charm all of their own. If only the same could be said of the characters.