In 1861, the silkworms begin to die. Herve Joncour and the rest of the citizens living in his small town in France have made their living from silkworms and aren’t sure what to do next. Trips just to Syria and Egypt will not bring back the healthy, thriving silkworms to fuel their economy. Businessman Baldabiou then tells Herve that the silkworms in Japan are still thriving, legendary for the quality of their silk. Bidding his lovely wife Helene good-bye, Herve sets off for Japan a total of four times, finding not only silkworms but also a quiet, passionate love in exotic, closed-off Japan.
This book is very short, less than 200 pages long, but the amount it packs into those 200 pages is truly breathtaking. In the space of page-long chapters, Baricco successfully conveys such strong emotion that as a reader, I was deeply moved. Without speaking, Herve falls in love with a mistress of Hara Kei, his silkworm contact in Japan. The mistress stands out because of her distinctly non-Japanese eyes which linger on Herve throughout the interview. With both elaborate and quiet gestures, the couple make their love known to each other, but they will never be able to express it. Through it all, what part does Herve’s wife Helene have to play? They love each other but how will Herve reconcile his two passions?
I was particularly surprised by how erotic this book became towards the end. There is a letter exchange which had me blushing, especially as I was reading the book while making dinner in my communal kitchen! Despite that, however, what this novel does convey is that beauty of simplicity while implying a great deal of depth. Except for a few times, Baricco doesn’t have to spell out what his characters are feeling. The beauty of his words, his descriptions of their actions, and the build-up of the characters themselves show us how they are feeling. I love when an author can do this. Showing consistently and never telling is, to me, one of the marks of a great writer.
Something else I liked was the way this book taught me about cultures in the latter half of the 19th century. Through these characters and their interactions, we learn about the culture of wealthy French people, about the east-west divide through all that Herve has to surmount not just to get to Japan but to even talk with the people who live there, and about the silkworm business and trade. I knew little about any of these topics and I found the little bits included to be very interesting. The deliberate foreignness of Japan, which had closed itself off to westerners, added something to the quality of the forbidden romance between Herve and the girl with the round eyes.
For such a short book, this one packs in a lot. It can be read and carefully considered in the space of an afternoon. I’d recommend it for those looking for a thoughtful but emotionally impacting read.