OCEAN SEA by Alessandro Baricco


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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, 1997). 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 over those 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.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-375-40423-6
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 1998


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