The worm in the bud

Harriet Paterson slips into a smooth tale of eastern promise; Silk by Alessandro Baricco, Harvill, pounds 6.99
Alessandro Baricco is hot publishing property in Italy, a rare commodity in a country where literary fiction is struggling to keep its head above water. He wins prizes with ease for his novels, of which this is the third. An effortless little book, Silk is the work of an author who knows how to please - as do his publishers, who have wrapped the book in the smoothest, silkiest laminate you're likely to find. The text is set like a long prose poem, tiny chapters surrounded by acres of white space, encouraging the tranquil sensations which reading the book produces.

Herve Joncour, a young 19th-century merchant, buys silkworms for a living. As an epidemic which affects the silkworms spreads through Europe, Herve travels furtherand further to find unblemished eggs: beyond the Mediterranean, to Syria and Egypt. The prosperity of his home town in the south of France depends upon his annual delivery.

Eventually the only country that remains uncontaminated is Japan, where foreigners are hanged on sight, but where silkworms superior to all others are rumoured to exist. Carrying a fortune in gold, Herve must travel to the end of the world, smuggle himself into the forbidden country and procure the worms. He has an exactly circumscribed amount of time to make it back home before the eggs hatch.

The fact that a love story grows out of this already romantic premise comes as no surprise. Baricco makes spare but sufficient use of ritual elements of Japanese sensuality as perceived by the western mind - bathing ceremonies, loose kimonos, shadows on rice-paper walls.

His writing shows an author in unquestioned control of his vocabulary, his phrases brief but precisely cadenced - in Guido Waldman's translation, as in the original. Here there will be no image out of place, no unruly ordering of words. Perhaps the only stylistic lapse comes towards the end, where he indulges in a burst of stream-of-consciousness eroticism which it is hard not to find comic in the midst of an otherwise restrained work.

Baricco is less interested in historical detail than in creating a broadly poetic tale which leaves behind a number of distinct tableaux: a sky full of precious exotic birds released from their aviary, two men sitting looking out over a lake where a concubine is swimming, an orange dress and two straw sandals left lying on the ground.

The ease and high silken finish of the writing suggest that Baricco is coasting after his more substantial novels, especially Oceano Mare with its probing questions about the nature of memory. Nevertheless, this small but perfectly formed novella offers an elegant and unfrenzied entry into his work; and if a writer wishes to switch from sustained narrative verse to the art of haiku, then who am I to argue?