‘Silk’ by Alessandro Baricco – Arduous Trips from France to Japan to Buy Silkworms


Silk’ by Alessandro Baricco (1996) – 91 pages              Translated from the Italian by Guido Waldman


Silk is a unique cloth in that it is produced by worms, silkworms, to form their cocoons. The shimmering appearance of silk is due to the triangular prism-like structure of the silk fiber, which allows silk cloth to refract incoming light at different angles, thus producing different colors.

The novella ‘Silk’ takes place in the early 1860s during a time when a disease in France is making their silkworm eggs unusable. This disease is likely to put the silk enterprise of French entrepreneur Hervie Joncour out of business. The French government has even brought in young biologist Louis Pasteur to study the disease and perhaps find a solution.

Meanwhile Joncour has heard about the thriving silk industry in Japan and how their silkworms are not susceptible to this disease. Joncour decides to make the arduous many month trip from France to Japan of 8,000 kilometers and which requires riding two thousand kilometers of Russian steppe on horseback.

In Japan, he negotiates the purchase of a large number of silkworms to bring back to France with a local Japanese baron, Hara Kei. Joncour becomes infatuated with Hara Kei’s concubine, a girl whose “eyes did not have an oriental slant and her face was the face of a young girl”.

After Joncour gets back to France, the Japan silkworms do not get the disease and they keep Joncour’s business profitable. Joncour makes a couple more arduous trips to Japan, each time becoming more infatuated with the concubine girl. Meanwhile Joncour’s wife stays at home in France.

I have something important to tell you monsieur. We’re all disgusting. We’re all marvelous, and we’re all disgusting.”

I won’t go any further into the story. Let’s just say that ‘Silk’ is an elegant and exotic strange little novella. The story is a romance and is far from realistic, but it doesn’t really matter. Even though it is very short, this novella is not a quick read because the story has many natural stopping points when the reader should just stop and not try to force it.

As I said before, the story takes place in the early 1860s. The Suez Canal, which opened in 1869, reduced Europeans trips to Japan to only 20 days.


Grade:    B



4 responses to this post.

  1. Sounds interesting Tony,

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Cathy,
      I see that Harper-Collins has recently published a separate title called ‘Galatea’ by Madeline Miller which is actually a fifty page short story from one of her previous collections. The book’s cover says ‘A Short Story’.



  2. Be prepared for this to be one of your most popular posts, Tony! I reviewed this one years ago and I get hundreds and hundreds of hits on it every year. I suspect it’s on a school curriculum and students are busily trying to plagiarise my review 😆

    Liked by 1 person


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