1/19 – Silk, by Alessandro Baricco

Tuesday, January 8, 2019 – discussion lead: Karen

220px-Alessandro_baricco_silk_pbSilk (Italian: Seta) is a 1996 novel by the Italian writer Alessandro Baricco. It was translated into English in 1997 by Guido Waldman. A new English translation by Ann Goldstein was published in 2006.

The novel tells the story of a French silkworm merchant-turned-smuggler named Hervé Joncour in 19th century France who travels to Japan for his town’s supply of silkworms after a disease wipes out their African supply. His first trip to Japan takes place in the Bakumatsu period, when Japan was still largely closed to foreigners. During his stay in Japan, he becomes obsessed with the concubine of a local baron. His trade in Japan and his personal relationship with the concubine are both strained by the internal political turmoil and growing anti-Western sentiment in Japan that followed the arrival of Matthew C. Perry in Endo Bay.

In NPR review of the book, Ru Freeman, who read Guido Waldman’s translation, writes: […] Baricco’s language is exquisitely phrased. It was easy to accompany Joncour on his difficult travels, and luxuriate in the sensuousness that awaits at the end of his journey. As I read, I could see exotic birds trapped in an aviary as a gift to a beloved, and the heady luxury of his host’s house. Above all, I could feel the intoxicating chemistry between two lovers who hold each other in plain sight of the world, though their bodies remain forever separate. A glance takes the place of a kiss. A cup of tea sipped from the same place on its rim stands in for an embrace. […]

Karen, who originally read the same translation and recommended the book based on it, brought both renditions to the meeting, but the rest of us read the only version that Seattle Public Library  carries – Ann Goldstein’s translation.  Many in the group reported stumbling through it and hard to relate, and  we spent most of the hour comparing the translations and discussing the difficulties of coveying both the language and the meaning from the original literary work to the translated one. After reading both translations Ruth summarized her experience as follows: Kudos to you and Karen without whom I would not have read the second (first?) translation of Silk, which was a revelation to me after my floundering through the awkwardness of the Goldstein version. I thoroughly enjoyed it and found in it beauty and authenticity, whereas the other struck me as hollow, false and ‘dead’.

About the author:

Alessandro Baricco born January 25, 1958 in Turin, Piedmont, is an Italian writer, director and performer. His novels have been translated into a wide number of languages. He currently lives in Rome with his wife and two sons.

The list of his work  translated to English (with links to reviews) is at Publisher’s Weekly.

Alessandro Baricco is the man behind Save the Story, a new initiative to create a library of favourite stories from around the world, retold for today’s children by some of the best contemporary writers […].  The beautifully illustrated stories span cultures – from Ancient Greece to 19th-century Russia – time and genres, from comedy and romance to mythology and the realist novel, and they have inspired all manner of artists for many generations.

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