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Alessandro Baricco: Setà (Silk)

This short and , apparently, simple story has had enormous success, not only in its original language but also in translations into various languages. The story is set in France, during the American Civil War, and concerns a small town which sets up a silk-producing business. Hervé Joncour’s job is to travel around, purchasing the silkworm eggs used in the business. The eggs of most of their suppliers are infected by a virus and, while a solution is sought to this problem (Louis Pasteur works on it), Joncour travels to Japan to find eggs that have not been infected. Japan, of course, has only just opened up to foreigners, thanks to the intervention of the US naval commander, Perry. In Japan, Joncour comes in touch with Hara Kei, a rich supplier, and in also with his nameless and silent mistress, who is clearly not Japanese. Despite being very much in love with his wife, Hélène, Joncour forms an attachment for this woman and, eventually, has a one night stand with her. He risks his life by returning during a civil war to see her again but does not.

This brief summary hardly does justice to the novel, which is one of those touching love stories that could so easily have been mawkish but which manages to work, not least because of Baricco’s skill in balancing the exotic and the tender. It will only take you an hour at most to read. You will enjoy it.

Publishing history

First published 1996 by Rizzoli, Milan
First published in English 1997 by Harvill Press