Silk is a startling, sensual, hypnotically compelling novella about a French silk merchant, Herve Jancour’s several dangerous journeys to and from Japan to obtain silkworms from one of its islands. Invited to stay in the court of an enigmatic nobleman, referred to as the “master of all that world might take away from the island,” he becomes enchanted by his reserved and beautiful concubine.
They do not touch. They do not speak. Though their bodies remain apart, they only meet in the presence of the master, or another woman, the reader can feel their vibrating and intoxicating chemistry. A glance takes the place of a kiss, a cup of tea sipped from the same place on the rim becomes an amorous embrace. Even the single note she gives him he cannot read until his return, and when he does, he becomes a man possessed. “Come back or I shall die,” she begs him.
I was spellbound with the story, and the powerful, evocative but terse descriptions: “Once he had held between his fingers a veil of Japanese silk thread. It was like holding between his fingers nothingness.”
It is a small book of less than one hundred pages, but that belies the fact that some chapters are simply a few sentences. It reads almost like a fable, an allegory but written with poetic license. The word choices, sentence structure, chapter sequences and layout, all create a delicate air of mystery, wonder, and unrequited love.
It’s a book that needs to be read slowly, and possibly several times. Words are at a premium. On each of his four journeys to Japan, it’s as if the author had cut and pasted the same section. But a close read shows that he can change a single word to impact a whole chapter. He reaches Lake Baikal which “the people of the place called the ‘sea’.” In his three subsequent journeys, it becomes ‘the devil,’ the ‘last,’ and ‘the saint.’
I am amazed how much emotion is conveyed in such a short story. As one critic writes, “it is beautiful, sensual, desperate and heartbreakingly sad.”
Translated from the Italian of Alessandro Baricco by Ann Goldstein.
A must read!