By Alessandro Baricco.
Translated from the Italian (Seta, 1996) by Guido Waldman
New York: Vintage Internations, 1997.
91 pages
ISBN # 0-375-70382-9.

Comments of Bob Corbett
May 2002

A magnificent gentle love story of Herve Joncour, a French merchant of silkworms in the 1860s. In the town of Lavilledieu (the town of God), silkworms are the key capital and silk making is the central economic activity. As European silkworms succumb to various diseases and the industry fails, Herve makes his first trip to Japan to illegally buy silk worms. He works through Hara Kei in whose household is a very young women with eyes there were not of an oriental slant. Herve is deeply attracted. We are never sure if she is Keiís daughter or wife/mistress/lover. But she does haunt Herveís mind and eventually she, while having no common language with Herve and no physical contact, provides him with a beautiful young woman in her stead who makes love to Herve.

At home in Lavilledieu he has a faithful and beloved wife, Helene. Nonetheless this strange and distant oriental lover possesses Herve. He makes several return trips to Japan and his love grows. Then war breaks out and it is impossible for him to go. He receives a letter from her and has it translated. It is a profession of love and devotion.

He canít bear the separation and journeys to Japan despite the war only to find Kei and the entire village on the run. He is led to them by a young boy who is later killed for such interference in village life, and Herve is confronted by Kei, told to leave Japan and never attempt to see her again.

Back in France his life settles into a pattern, but even Helene can sense his distance and in her way knows of the Japanese lover who holds a place of mystique in Herveís mind which she can never match.

Another letter comes, a deeply erotic letter but one that makes clear he should never return to Japan and never seek to make contact again, yet professing devotion and love.

Herve lives with that letter dominating his life until after the death of Helene many years later. Then he begins to suspect things are not as they seem and he follows up uncovering a surprise ending which left this reader deeply saddened.

Alessandro Baricco writes with great sensitivity, gentleness and eroticism. I read the novel over a very rainy dark day and was transported a century and a half away in time, a continent and ocean away in space and a long long distance in lived experience. Yet I felt a deep kinship to Herve Joncour and his longing as most of us have for the perfect union with another person. His union with the mysterious young woman in Japan was not the ideal most of us seek, but his spirit toward that union was. I would urge any person with a sense of romance to read this lovely little novel.

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett