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Ocean Sea

Ocean Sea

5.0 2
by Alessandro Baricco, Ann Goldstein (Translator)

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"Exotic...erotic... Ocean Sea is highly romantic and breathtakingly lyrical."--The New York Times Book Review

With Silk, his first novel to appear in English, Alessandro Baricco immediately proved himself to be a magical storyteller. With Ocean Sea, he has been acclaimed as the successor to Italo Calvino, and a major voice in


"Exotic...erotic... Ocean Sea is highly romantic and breathtakingly lyrical."--The New York Times Book Review

With Silk, his first novel to appear in English, Alessandro Baricco immediately proved himself to be a magical storyteller. With Ocean Sea, he has been acclaimed as the successor to Italo Calvino, and a major voice in modern literature.

In Ocean Sea, Alessandro Baricco presents a hypnotizing postmodern fable of human malady--psychological, existential, erotic--and the sea as a means of deliverance. At the Almayer Inn, a remote shoreline hotel, an artist dips his brush in a cup of ocean water to paint a portrait of the sea. A scientist pens love letters to a woman he has yet to meet. An adulteress searches for relief from her proclivity to fall in love. And a sixteen-year-old girl seeks a cure from a mysterious condition which science has failed to remedy. When these people meet, their fates begin to interact as if by design. Enter a mighty tempest and a ghostly mariner with a thirst for vengeance, and the Inn becomes a place where destiny and desire battle for the upper hand. Playful, provocative, and ultimately profound, Ocean Sea is a novel of striking originality and wisdom.

Editorial Reviews

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

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.

Richard Eder
Fascinating...The remarkable Baricco is artistic kin to his compatriot Roberto Calasso. Both are originals ...Both write with a charm.
Los Angeles Times
Craig Seligman
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

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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?

Jenny McPhee
...[H]ighly romantic and breathtakingly lyrical... —The New York Times Book Review
Richard Bernstein
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.
Library Journal
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
Anthony Brandt
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.
Men's Journal
Nancy Pearl
Totally original and hypnotically readable...Both breathlessly funny and terribly sad.
Thomas Simpson
Baricco weaves words into a fabric as delicate as Venetian lace.
Chicago Tribune
Kirkus Reviews
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.

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
International Series
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.19(w) x 7.97(h) x 0.57(d)

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 instead immediately 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.

Only seldom, and in a way that some people, in those moments, when they saw her, were heard to whisper

       "She'll die of it"


       "She'll die of it"

       or perhaps

       "She'll die of it"

       or even

       "She'll die of it."

       All around, hills.

       My land, thought Baron Carewall.

It is not exactly an illness, it could be one, but it is something less, if it has a name it must be lighter than air, say it and it's already gone.

       "When she was a little girl, one day a beggar came and began to sing a lullaby, the lullaby startled a blackbird that flew off . . ."

       ". . . startled a dove that flew off and the fluttering of wings . . ."
       ". . . the wings that fluttered, the faintest sound . . ."

       ". . . it must have been ten years ago . . ."

       ". . . the dove flashed past the window, in a trice, so, and she looked up from her toys and I don't know, a dread came upon her, but it was a blank dread, I mean to say that she was not like one afraid, she was like one on the point of disappearing . . ."

       ". . . the fluttering of wings . . ."

       ". . . one whose soul was fleeing . . ."

       ". . . do you believe me?"

       They believed that she would grow and everything would pass. But in the meantime all over the castle they were laying carpets because, it is obvious, she was afraid of her own footsteps, white carpets, everywhere, a color that could do no harm, soundless footsteps and sightless colors. In the park, the paths were circular with the single bold exception of a pair of snaking avenues that curled to form smooth regular curves -- psalms -- and this was more reasonable, in fact all you need is a little sensitivity to understand that any blind corner is a possible ambush, and two roads that cross are a perfect geometrical violence, enough to frighten anyone who possesses real sensitivity and all the more so her, who was not exactly possessed of a sensitive spirit but, to put it in exact terms, possessed by an uncontrollable sensitivity of spirit forever exploded in who knows which moment of her secret life -- the merest scrap of a life, young as she was -- only to return by mysterious ways to her heart, and her eyes, and hands and all over, like an illness, although it was not an illness, but something less, if it has a name it must be lighter than air, say it and it's already gone.

       This is why, in the park, the paths were circular.

       Nor should you forget the story of Edel Trut, whose skill in weaving silk was unrivaled throughout the land and that was why he was summoned by the Baron, one winter's day, when the snow lay as tall as children, as cold as the devil, and getting that far was hellish hard, the horse steaming, its hooves slithering about haphazardly in the snow, and the sleigh behind drifting to the leeward, if I don't get there in ten minutes perhaps I'll die, as sure as my name's Edel, I'll die, and what's more without even knowing what the devil the Baron wants to show me that's so important . . .

       "What do you see, Edel?"

       In his daughter's room, the Baron stands in front of the long wall without windows, speaking softly, with the courtesy of olden times.

       "What do you see?"

       Cloth of Burgundy, quality stuff, and a landscape like any other, a job well done.

       "It is not just any landscape, Edel. Or at least not for my daughter."

       His daughter.

       It is a kind of mystery, but you must try to understand, using your imagination, and forgetting what is known so that the fancy may roam free, running far off deep within things until it can see how the soul is not always a diamond but sometimes a silken veil -- this I can understand -- imagine a diaphanous silken veil, anything could tear it, even a glance, and think of the hand that takes it -- a woman's hand -- yes -- it moves slowly and clasps the veil between the fingers, but clasping is already too much, the hand lifts it as if it were not a hand but a puff of wind and enfolds it between the fingers as if they were not fingers but . . . as if they were not fingers but thoughts. So. This room is that hand, and my daughter is a silken veil.

       Yes, I have understood.

       "I do not want waterfalls, Edel, but the peace of a lake, I do not want oaks but birches, and those mountains in the background must become hills, and the day a sunset, the wind a breeze, the cities towns, the castles gardens. And if there really must be falcons, at least let them fly, and far away."

       Yes, I have understood. There's only one thing: and the men?

       The Baron fell silent. He observed all the characters of the enormous tapestry, one by one, as if listening to their opinion. He moved from one wall to the other, but no one spoke. It was to be expected.

       "Edel, is there a way to make men who do no evil?"

       God Himself must have wondered about that, at the time.

       "I know not. But I shall try."

       In Edel Trut's workshop they labored for months with the miles of silk yarn that the Baron sent. They worked in silence because, as Edel said, the silence had to be woven into the fabric of the cloth. It was yarn like any other, only you could not see it, but it was there. And so they worked in silence.


       Then one day a cart arrived at the Baron's castle, and on the cart was Edel's masterpiece. Three enormous rolls of cloth as heavy as the crosses borne in processions. They carried them up a flight of stairs and then along the corridors and through door after door until they reached the heart of the castle and the room that awaited them. Just before they unrolled them, the Baron murmured, "And the men?"

       Edel smiled.

       "And if there really must be men, at least let them fly, and far away."

       The Baron chose the light of the sunset to take his daughter by the hand and lead her to her new room. Edel says that she came in and instantly flushed, for wonder, and for a moment the Baron feared that the surprise might be too much, but it was only a moment, because instantly you could hear the irresistible silence of that silken world where lay a fair and most pleasant land and little men suspended in the air, paced with measured tread across the pale blue of the sky.

       Edel says -- and this he will never forget -- that she gazed around for a long moment and then, turning, she smiled.

       Her name was Elisewin.

       She had a most beautiful voice -- velvet -- and when she walked it was as if she slipped through the air, so that you could not take your eyes off her. Every now and again, for no reason, she liked to run along the corridors, toward who knows what, on those awful white carpets, she stopped being the shadow she was and ran, but only seldom, and in a way that some people, in those moments, when they saw her, were heard to whisper . . .

Meet the Author

Alessandro Baricco has won numerous literary awards in Italy and France. He lives in Turin, Italy.

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Ocean Sea 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Alessandro Baricco's Ocean Sea is a lyrically beautiful, but cruel, allegory of the secret hopes, dreams, fears, quests and horrors that drive us all and often, against our wishes, consume our lives. And, no matter how hard we deny it, there comes a time in every person's life when he or she must confront his deepest, darkest secrets, a time when they can no longer be suppressed. For it is only when we confront our fears and our obsessions, our hopes and our dreams, and yes, even our horrors, that they lose their power over us and we are finally restored to wholeness. Alessandro Baricco has assembled a cast of broken, disparate characters, each seeking the restorative powers of the ocean sea, that elusive place where fantasy meets reality, where love and horror become inexorably woven into the fabric of life. Baricco's prose is certainly not the flowery, overwrought 'purple prose' of Anne Rice or Michael Ondaatje. Instead, it evokes the lyrical skeletalness of Debussy--beautiful and difficult, yet barely there, like the edge of the sea, itself. Savigny's narrative, in Book II, is one of the finest examples of the power and beauty of language I have ever encountered. If I have any criticism of Ocean Sea, it is the fact that the ultimate fate of Professor Bartleboom did not seem in character with the savage beauty evoked in the rest of the book. I almost felt as though I had been dropped inside another story altogether. But allegory is difficult to write and even more difficult to read, and Ocean Sea is no exception. I doubt that anyone alive can absorb this exquisite book's impact in only one reading. Like Silk, another of Baricco's works, Ocean Sea is a masterpiece. A small, but flawless, gem that will astound you and haunt you, but will never, ever let you alone.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was a random selection from the bookstore shelf one afternoon. I do not regret it. This book was absolutely fabulous and I recommend it to anyone who delights in experimentation with plot, vocabulary, and syntax. Absolutely extraordinary!