26 January 2008

Silk, by Alessandro Baricco

This book teeters on the border of being overly precious, but manages, just barely, not too go to far. It's the difference between being in love with language and being in love with the sound of your own voice. Repetition tends to be a good indicator - does the phrase really merit a repeat performance? In Silk, for instance, the main character's voyage to Japan is always given in the same words, almost verbatim, but with one variation, which thus stands out starkly from the rest. It's somewhat tedious, but also sort of irritatingly overwrought. No good. Likewise, the woman who is always described as having a "young girl's face" - look, that's just not that great a description to begin with. Repeating it 6 times is not gonna make it any better.

What saves this book - despite all the repetitions - is its brevity. It's maybe 90 pages long, but almost all of those pages contain only a paragraph, or even just a few lines. This, incidentally, tends to be another marker of overly self-conscious writing; when the author feels the need to set each of his/her exquisite sentences ALONE on the page so that each can be cherished like the little jewel that it is - but it actually works well for this book, forcing you to move through it in a kind of halting pace that is well suited to its content.

Anyhow - the book has a sort of aloofness about it that I really enjoyed. It doesn't belabor the emotional upheavals of its cast, and this makes them all the more poignant. Likewise, it doesn't spend a lot of time revelling in its East-West border crossings - thank god - so it manages to avoid overt exoticism and stay in the realm of a kind of passive but intrigued acknowledgement of difference. How deeply the protagonist has been effected by his encounters with new ideas is shown obliquely, by his actions upon returning home.

All in all, a nice book. It's not amazing, but it's a pleasurable way to spend 45 minutes.

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