It's a rare novel that inspires one to learn a new language just to be able to read it in its original tongue. Alessandro Baricco's Silk and Ocean Sea are two such books.
The 65 chapters of Silk, each no longer than four pages, have been translated into 27 languages, and reviewers around the world have lauded the powerful work as "vividly erotic" (the Los Angeles Times) and a "heartbreaking love story...a literary gem of bewitching power" (the London Sunday Times). After winning most of Europe's most prestigious literary awards, Baricco has finally stepped onto the world stage.
Like Silk, Ocean Sea is a haunting tale of love and revenge. A handful of disparate lives -- each of them perilously unwhole -- converge at a remote seaside inn: a lovelorn professor searching for the sea's end; a painter trying to capture its beginning; an inscrutable seductress banished by her husband; and a beautiful young girl, terminally ill, brought to the sea by a desperate father's last hope.
An intricate web of associations and fates begins to expose itself, but it is not until the arrival of an enigmatic sailor named Adams that the truth in all its phantasmagoric beauty and hideous cruelty becomes clear. Adams may furnish the key to the girl's salvation, but only the fulfillment of his obsessive secret intention -- to avenge a murder -- can complete the journey that has brought him from the ends of the earth.
Part adventure-romance, part philosophical inquiry, both playful and profoundly serious, Ocean Sea surges with the hypnotic power of the waves.
Fascinating...The remarkable Baricco is artistic kin to his compatriot Roberto Calasso. Both are originals ...Both write with a charm.
Los Angeles Times
Alessandro Baricco's newly translated 1993 novel, Ocean Sea, takes place in a faraway, long-ago land that has the vagueness of a fairy-tale kingdom but the sharpness of a dream. The story, a kind of tragic whimsy, draws a disparate group of eccentrics a beautiful young noblewoman, a priest, an adulteress, a painter, a professor and so forth together at a mysterious seaside inn that seems to be staffed solely by five enchanted children. If I were looking for flaws, I might object to the book's construction (major characters are still being introduced more than halfway through), though at the end I was startled at how tightly it turned out to be put together. I could complain that Alastair McEwan's translation sounds like a translation, if the antiquated diction didn't lead me to suspect that the original sounds like a translation, too. The truth is that I have no objections, or rather that Ocean Sea demolished the few I had with the easy authority of a masterpiece.
Initially the odd characters seem to be satirically drawn, starting with Plasson, the painter who dips his brush into the surf to paint invisible seascapes ("this man is painting the sea with the sea"). But by the end of the book it's clear that Baricco adores his creations. His favorite, probably, is Bartleboom, the professor, who has traveled to the oceanside to study the exact point at which waves break on the shore the point, that is, where the sea ends for the Encyclopedia of Limits he is writing. At first Bartleboom appears to be a bumbling specimen of scientific hubris. Yet every night this man carefully composes a passionate letter to the woman he loves, then places it in a mahogany box against the approaching day when he is serenely confident he will finally meet her. This is the comedy not of folly but of extravagance, of generosity, of faith. Bartleboom's "provisional catalog of the pictorial works of the painter Michel Plasson" is very funny ("Completely white ... Completely white ... Completely white") until his affection for his friend surfaces and it turns suddenly, sharply poignant. He is a great creation, a character who makes his entrance as a clown and attains, by the end, the stature of a moral hero.
It's hard to believe that the original Italian could be any more beautiful than McEwan's translation. Baricco's style is more ornate here than in the only other work that he has published in this country, the exquisite novella Silk, which is told in a restrained, straightforward manner. In Ocean Sea he spins out long sentences, elaborate ropes of words practically absurd in their gorgeousness, sentences that go on and on, just phrases and clauses strung together, really, something like what I'm doing now, except of course that what I'm doing is merely a trick with commas, Baricco does it with genius, with humor and grace, and occasionally he sets
The book has the air of a long-established classic that you are just now getting around to: Everything that happens in it is surprising, and yet everything feels inevitable. It unfolds with the magisterial humor of a work written at the end of a long and illustrious career; in fact, Baricco was born in 1958. I can detect only one clue in the book to his relative youth. A septuagenarian master would have written the novel as a comedy, not a romantic tragedy. Ocean Sea is a peculiar kind of tragedy a tragedy by a writer whose spirit is comic, an artist with a cheerful faith in the goodness of people and that makes it unique in my experience, because who ever heard of an optimistic tragedy?
...[H]ighly romantic and breathtakingly lyrical... The New York Times Book Review
These lives and others are going to intersect amorously, comically, and murderously...in this lusciously mystical novel...a strangely engaging book.
The New York Times
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Italian writer Baricco, who wrote this novel before the highly regarded Silk, again delivers a work whose spare, lyrical language and enigmatic episodes culminate in a tale of love and revenge. This story of obsession is a meditation on the sea its seductive surface and erotic depths with the power to heal or destroy. Mirroring the ebb and flow of the ocean, Baricco's cast of characters complement each other. In 19th-century France, six people are drawn, each for distinct reasons, to a seaside hotel inhabited only by four precocious, spiritlike children. Researching his scientific book, An Encyclopedia of Limits, Professor Bartleboom seeks the point at which the sea ends; painter Plasson is determined to find where the sea begins. Ann Deveria has been sent by her husband to repent her adulturous ways, while Elisewin, a young, sickly girl, experiences her first love and finds her health restored. Father Pluche, the priest who accompanies Elisewin, discovers the meaning of life; a secretive sailor, Adams, searches for death. For each person, the "sea is a place where you take leave of yourself" in search of his or her mystery; yet each character's story of love, betrayal, murder or redemption is revealed to be inexorably entangled with the others' while the sea bears silent witness to their destinies. It is only through the ripples of Adams's vengeful act that each person realizes his or her destiny. Baricco's prose stylistically echoes his central metaphor: his sentences undulating, breaking and subsiding, a mood that translator McEwan maneuvers beautifully. At times this feat is accomplished masterfully; at others the author's hand is all too apparent, eclipsing the delicate mingling of his intriguing characters with their vengeful and poetic twists of fate.
Baricco's first novel since his international best seller, Silk, this delicately written work is filled with stirring allegorical imagery but still has more heft than its stylishly slim predecessor. A group of characters meet at a seaside hotel that appears to be managed by a few prescient children. One guest, a young woman with a mysterious depressive illness, has come for an ocean cure that will either kill her or save her. A professor studying the scientific aspect of things observes the ocean's edge, while an artist paints seascapes using sea water as his medium, producing a series of white canvases. The dreamlike scenes are feverish and fitful, sometimes annoyingly incomplete, sometimes shockingly violent. A particularly horrifying episode involving a life raft is told twice, like a recurring nightmare. Is this a meditation on the sea, on revenge, on life and art? It's hard to say. Though beautifully crafted, this work will probably not be to most readers' taste.
Reba Leiding, James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA
Ocean Sea blew me away. it's half dream, half lyric...I know somebody who learned Italian so he could read Dante in the original. I would do the same for Baricco.
Totally original and hypnotically readable...Both breathlessly funny and terribly sad.
Baricco weaves words into a fabric as delicate as Venetian lace.
The sea is both cradle of life and lodestone as it draws men toward madness-in this frustratingly elusive fiction,Italian musicologist Baricco's second to appear in English (the novella Silk). There are two imperfectly connected stories here: the first takes place at the Almayer Inn (a nod to Joseph Conrad?), a seaside establishment where a random group of visitors seek goals elsewhere unattainable. A portrait painter aims to capture the sea's essence on canvas; a professor examines its ebbing and flowing for his magnum opus, An Encyclopedia of the Limits to be found in Nature; a sickly young girl is sent their to be cured; an adulterous wife is banished thence by her husband, hoping the overpowering presence of nature will temper her "unnatural" behavior. The otherworldly character of the Inn itself (whose inhabitants include mysteriously prescient, seemingly aged children) is implicitly compared to the sinister influence of the sea, which-in the second storyline-drives the survivors of a shipwreck off the African coast to murder, cannibalism, and the enduring pursuit of revenge against the ship's officers who had "sacrificed" their interiors. The character who links the two stories is Adams, a ghostly mariner whose long journey ends at the Almayer Inn in a confrontation with his old enemy (whom Baricco has indirectly, and quite ingeniously, worked into both plots). But all these dramatic inventions, initially very arresting, fail to grip us as they might have, thanks to Baricco's portentous generalizations ("She was walking and it was the most beautiful thing she had ever done," etc.) and faux-mystical apostrophes to the sea's seductive (if unspecified) power overthose who travel it or otherwise experience its spell. Silk was remarkable for its haunting clarity; Ocean Sea is a metaphysical-symbolic miasma in which the intrigued reader can only flounder.
From the Publisher
"Ocean Sea has the air of a long-established classic."Salon
"Alessandro Baricco is a novelist who weaves words into a fabric as delicate as Venetian lace."Chicago Tribune
"The remarkable Baricco is artistic kin to his compatriot, Roberto Calasso. Both are originals; both weave patterns of myth and human story and the airy and earthly connections between them." Los Angeles Times
Read an Excerpt
Sand as far as the eye can see, between the last hills and the sea -- the sea -- in the cold air of an afternoon almost past, and blessed by the wind that always blows from the north.
The beach. And the sea.
It could be perfection -- an image for divine eyes -- a world that happens, that's all, the mute existence of land and water, a work perfectly accomplished, truth --truth -- but once again it is the redeeming grain of a man that jams the mechanism of that paradise, a bagatelle capable on its own of suspending all that great apparatus of inexorable truth, a mere nothing, but one planted in the sand, an imperceptible tear in the surface of that sacred icon, a minuscule exception come to rest on the perfection of that boundless beach. To see him from afar he would be no more than a black dot: amid nothingness, the nothing of a man and a painter's easel. The easel is anchored by slender cords to four stones placed on the sand. It sways imperceptibly in the wind that always blows from the north. The man is wearing waders and a large fisherman's jacket. He is standing, facing the sea, twirling a slim paintbrush between his fingers. On the easel, a canvas.
He is like a sentinel -- this you must realize -- standing there to defend that part of the world from the silent invasion of perfection, a small crack that fragments that spectacular stage set of being. As it is always like this, you need only the glimmer of a man to wound the repose of that which would otherwise be a split second away from becoming truth but insteadimmediately becomes suspense and doubt once more, because of the simple and infinite power of that man who is a slit, a chink, a small doorway through which return a flood of stories and the enormous inventory of what could be, an infinite gash, a marvelous wound, a path made of thousands of steps where nothing can be true anymore but everything will be -- just as the steps are of that woman who, wrapped in a purple cloak, her head covered, is pacing the beach with measured tread, skirting the backwash of the sea, her feet tracing furrows from right to left across what is by then the lost perfection of the great picture, consuming the distance that separates her from the man until she comes to within a few paces of him, and then right beside him, where it takes nothing to pause and silently look on.
The man does not even turn. He continues staring out at the sea. Silence. From time to time he dips the brush in a copper cup and makes a few light strokes on the canvas. In their wake the bristles of the brush leave a shadow of the palest obscurity that the wind immediately dries bringing the pristine white back to the surface. Water. In the copper cup there is only water. And on the canvas, nothing. Nothing that may be seen.
The north wind blows as it always does and the woman pulls her purple cloak closer around her.
"Plasson, you have been working for days and days down here. Why do you carry all those colors around with you if you do not have the courage to use them?"
This seems to wake him up. This hits home. He turns to observe the woman's face. And when he speaks it is not to reply.
"Please, do not move, he says."
Then he brings the brush up to the woman's face, hesitates a moment, rests it on her lips and slowly runs it from one corner of her mouth to the other. The bristles come away tinged with carmine. He looks at them, dips them ever so slightly in the water and looks up once more towards the sea. On the woman's lips there lingers the hint of a taste that obliges her to think "sea water, this man is painting the sea with the sea" -- and it is a thought that brings a shiver.
For some time now she has already turned round, and is already pacing measuredly back along the immense beach, her steps a mathematical rosary, when the wind brushes the canvas to dry a puff of rosy light, left to float unadorned amid the white. You could stay for hours looking at that sea, and that sky, and everything, but you would find nothing of that color. Nothing that may be seen.
The tide, in those parts, comes in before night falls. Just before. The water surrounds the man and his easel, it clutches them, slowly but with precision, they stay there, the one and the other, impassable, like a miniature island, or a wreck with two heads.
Plasson, the painter.
Every evening a boat comes to pick him up, just before sunset, when the water has already reached his heart. This is the way he wants it. He boards the boat, stows away the easel and all, and allows himself to be taken home.
The sentinel goes away. His duty done. Danger averted. Against the sunset the icon that has again failed to become sacred fades away. All because of that manikin and his paintbrushes. And now that he has gone, time has run out. The dark suspends everything. There is nothing that can, in the dark, become true.