Another book review to close August. Can you believe it’s the last day of the month? I can’t! I feel like time is whizzing past me and I’m struggling to keep up. It also means with September fast approaching, I’m one step closer to being back at work. Better to put that thought on the back burner and concentrate on my review today. Today’s book is a little, cute thing I found at a charity book shop on my travels: Silk by Alessandro Baricco.
Originally written in Italian in 1996, this book was translated in 1997. What’s strange is I stumbled across this 20 years later. It was sticking out, on a slant on the shelf. It caught my eye. I quickly saw that the cover was beautiful and the back of the book was full of quotes like:
“A moving allegory of life as a quest…”
“A heartbreaking love story told in the form of a classic fable…”
Clearly a bargain at £1.
What’s it all about?
The 1860s silk trade was booming and Hervè Joncour travels around the world buying silkworm eggs. Eventually, after problems with the silkworm eggs in Africa, Joncour travels to Japan. He buys eggs from the interesting character of Hara Kei, a French speaking nobleman. Joncour falls in love with his mistress, a rather curious and silent character, ultimately incredibly beautiful also. He makes a note of her eyes in particular.
“Suddenly, without the smallest movement, the young girl, opened her eyes.”
During his second visit to Japan, Jancour learns about the aviary of exotic birds that Hara Kei has built. His mind, however, seems distracted by the young girl. He leaves a glove her the mistress to find in a pile of clothes: a token. Towards the end of this visit, the mistress gives him a love note written in Japanese, the first of many over the travels. Unable to understand, Joncour visits Madame Blanche, a rich draper and brothel owner. She translates the letter for him.
“Come back, or I shall die.”
During Joncour’s third visit to Japan, Hara Kei’s mistress released the birds from the aviary. Through the darkness, as time progresses, they make love, thus starting their affair. It should be noted that Joncour was married to Hélène. She waits patiently at home for his return. Hara Kei conducts the silkworm egg transaction via another associate and refuses to say goodbye when Joncour leaves.
However, when it is time for Joncour’s fourth trip to Japan, war had broken out in Japan. He finds Hara Kei’s village was burnt to the ground; nothing remained. From what appears to be out of nowhere, a young boy appears and gives him the glove that he dropped on the pile of clothes for Hara Kei’s mistress. Showing unlimited trust, he follows the boy to a place where the refugees from Hara Kei’s village are camping.
“In front of him, nothing. He had a sudden glimpse of what he had considered invisible. The end of the world.”
Unlike his previous visits, Hara Kei refuses to welcome Joncour, rather urging him to leave. They are living in a war and clearly nothing was left. Nevertheless, Joncour refuses to leave. The following morning, Joncour sees the body of the boy who guided him, hanging from a tree. Hara Kei has executed him for carrying the glove to Joncour and bringing him back to their village.
Rather hastily, Joncour procures a supply of eggs but leaves far too late in the season to transport them. The silk mill, despite its earlier success, sits idle. To help the workers in the seven mills, Joncour decides to essentially landscape his garden, offering work to those who were missing out in the idle mills.
“Occasionally, on windy days Hervé Joncour would go down to the lake and spend hours in contemplation of it because he seemed to descry, sketched out on the water, the inexplicable sight of his life as it had been, in all its lightness.”
Time passes and Joncour receives a letter, again written in Japanese. This cues another visit to Madame Blanche who, after some reluctance, translates this for him. It is an erotic love letter from a woman to her beloved master. It’s lyrical, almost moving. It tells the tale of a love that we all hope for. After reading, Madame Blanche gives him some of her trademark blue flowers.
It is at this point that Joncour decides to retire from the silkworm egg business. At this point he and Hélène have three daughters. Unfortunately, Hélène gets sick and dies of a fever. Joncour lives a life of existing, visiting his wife’s grave whenever he gets lonely. It was at one visit he notices Madame Blanche’s blue flowers there. This sparks one final visit to her.
“When loneliness mastered him he would go up to the cemetery…The rest of his time was taken up with a liturgy of habits that succeeded in warding off sadness.”
It is with great sadness that at this visit, Joncour learns that this great love letter was authored in fact by his wife.
“She even wanted to read it to me, that letter. She had the most beautiful voice. And she read those words with an emotion that I’ve never been able to forget. It was as if they really were her own words.”
This novel is quite possibly one of the most highly descriptive, moving and emotionally charged novel I’ve probably ever read. It is beautiful and lyrical. It keeps you thinking about it long after you’ve finished reading it. It’s probably one of the best £1’s I’ve spent.
Big love xx