Philippe's Reviews > Silk

Silk by Alessandro Baricco
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Feb 01, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: fiction, translated
Read in January, 2005

** spoiler alert ** "Silk" is a delightful little booklet, easy to finish in a single sitting. I have read it a couple of times, eager to tunnel through to its deeper messages. Because it is obvious to me - and Baricco tells us as much - that "Silk" is more than just a quirky love story. It pays to read a bit further afield in Baricco's oeuvre to get a sense of what this author is after. After having read "Silk", "City", "Ocean Sea" and "Lands of Glass", it seems to me that the common thread linking all these stories is man's confrontation with the Real. I am borrowing Lacan's concept of the Real to denote something that we, as human beings, cannot speak about. The Real is beyond language. It is a primeval state of completeness that is inaccessible to the unstable, contingent linguistic order to which we are confined. In Baricco's stories, the Real emerges (or breaks into our life world) in various disguises, be it in the shape of nature elements (the sea, the wind, endless space), or "unreadable" personalities or artefacts (the shoe heel in "City"). In "Silk" the Real appears "at the end of the world" in the form of an enigmatic (Japanese?) lady. She stares Hervé Joncour, the protagonist, in the face without ever uttering a word ...

Baricco's genius resides in his capability to wrap this confrontation between the Real and our imperfect linguistic order in brillantly suggestive metaphors: building cities, telling stories, writing film scripts, boxing, playing soccer, building railroads, painting, scholarly investigating the very edge of the sea ... all areas of human activity are pervaded by the endless, precarious struggle to come to grips with the abundance of the Real. It is these metaphors around which many of his Baricco's stories are wrapped. And his carefully crafted, limpid prose helps to convey the fragile humanity of this struggle.

Interestingly, Baricco not only zooms in on the obviously creative, artistic endeavours of human beings as expressions of this confrontation. Also the world of business can be an arena in which we face up to our fallen state. Baricco has a weak spot for visionary entrepreneurs whose primary motivation is not making money, but making a living through epic and quixotic ventures. Mr. Rail in "Lands of Glass" is an obvious example. And Hervé Joncour in "Silk" belongs to the same class. Joncour is first and foremost a merchant in silkworms, a trader, a businessman. At a certain level, "Silk" could be read by students in business administration as an interesting case, describing the bumpy ride of an economic sector in response to technological developments (Pasteur, the opening up of the Suez canal, artificial silk) and political dynamics (in several sourcing areas, notably Japan).

Hervé Joncour mediates between this prosaic world of business and the irreducable surplus of the "world out there". In describing Joncour's resulting process of personal transformation, Baricco's is playing on some decidely Buddhist themes. Indeed, Joncour turns into a virtuous person, a "boddhisattva": quietly disengaged from his own fate and acting virtuously, not out of habit or calculation, but out of extension or empathy with the "whole system" (as is revealed by the episode where he saves the local community by inviting them to join him in building his personal garden).

As Baricco tells us: the story starts with a man that goes to the end of the world and it ends with a lake that is just lying there, on a windy day. The lake, with its fluttering of light on its ever changing surface, is an apt metaphor for what is called in Buddhist tradition "sunyata" or emptiness. Joncour has let go of his ego and embraced the ephemeral groundlessness of the self and the world. The last sentence of the book is "Once in a while, on windy days, he walked down to the lake and looked at it for hours. There he had the idea that he saw, sketched on the surface of the water, the inexplicable and luminous spectacle that his life had been".

I haven't spoken about Hélène, Joncour's wife. She embodies the Symbolic, the volatile and inescapable network of pre-defined sign systems that defines the perimeter of human culture. It is Hélène who writes that long, mysterious letter and Baricco stresses its sign-like, almost abstract character by describing the leaflets filled with Japanese characters as a "catalogue full of marks of little birds' feet, put together with accurate madness". The letter is a desperate, doomed attempt to close the gap between the Symbolic and the Real. Speaking about Hélène's attraction to the mysterious Japanese lady, Mme Blanche says to Joncour: "You know, Monsieur, I believe that, more than anything else, she longed to be that woman." Closing the gap can't, however, be done. Just as Hervé is married to Hélène, we are indissolubly linked to our linguistic order. But there is a profound ambiguity underlying this relationship. Joncour is unwaveringly loyal to his wife as he knows he has no real alternative. There is also an element of seduction at work as exemplified by Hélène's melodious voice to which Baricco keeps drawing our attention. The symbolic order never ceases to exert its siren call on us, wrapping us into an illusory, narcistic cocoon of our own making (what Lacan has called the Imaginary). But there is a price to pay for this infatuation: the marriage between Hervé and Hélène is sterile; the couple does not beget any children ...
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