By: Alessandro Barricco
The year is 1861. Hervé Joncour is a French merchant of silkworms, who combs the known world for their gemlike eggs. Then circumstances compel him to travel farther, beyond the edge of the known, to a country legendary for the quality of its silk and its hostility to foreigners: Japan.
There Joncour meets a woman. They do not touch; they do not even speak. And he cannot read the note she sends him until he has returned to his own country. But in the moment he does, Joncour is possessed.
I read this novel a few years ago, maybe around the time that the adaptation came out (lovely adaptation, though I wished someone else had been cast for the character of Herve Joncour; Michael Pitt was too wooden for the role). I decided to re-read it again recently, as part of the I Love Italy Reading Challenge and in part because I own both the Italian and English editions and wanted to practice my Italian reading comprehension (I ended up reading half and half). Contains some spoilers!
The first time I had read this novel, I was quite charmed by its simplicity and by the story but ultimately found it lacking: I thought there would be more to the story but there wasn’t. Reading it this time around, I realised that the novel is not so much about the plot or the depth/complexity/characters as it is the experience. The short, poetic sentences used to present the narrative is not only useful to elicit an aesthetic mood to the story but also to keep the narrative at a minimal, allowing the reader to fill in the blanks (from the point of view of someone studying the language, it was useful to pick up words later on as Baricco wrote the novel as a fairy tale almost, with repetition).
But what to make of the story itself? It seems to be a meditation on Love, between what is expected, what is desired and what is. I’m inclined to believe that (same as the first time that I read it) Herve’s feelings towards the Japanese woman (if she really is just Japanese; the narrative made a note that her eyes were not like other Japanese, they were not almond-shaped) was merely out of lust, out of curiosity because she was such a mystery. The ultimate tragedy lies in the extent that his wife Helene took to give him closure and in the end, Herve is left with no one. On the flipside, with the way in which the story is told, one would thing that the novel is also a meditation on the passage of life, how Herve’s life moved from one of travelling long distances to staying at home and recounting his younger days. In the end, it really is up to the reader’s interpretation on what to take out of the story.
Overall, it was interesting to revisit the novel in both languages. I feel like I’m still missing some element to the story and that I haven’t picked up on. I still wished there was a bit more to the narrative to fully grasp the conflict in Herve; it feels as though everyone and everything in this story are across a looking glass at which you can only observe them from afar. Nonetheless, this time around I was able to enjoy the lyricism of the story and the quiet reflection that came with it.