It is said that the finest silk feels like nothing between the fingertips. Alessandro Baricco's international bestseller, Silk, was fine in every sense of the word: a beguiling 19th-century fable of a French silkworm trader and a Japanese concubine, whose wordless passion was so elliptically evoked that the novella barely seemed to exist. Now the Turin-based author follows it with a work cut from the coarsest, scratchiest tweed imaginable. Not only is City a much bulkier tome, it's a knotty ragbag of wanton circumlocution and narrative anarchy. It is like slipping out of a kimono and pulling on a hairshirt.
Not that the experience is unduly penitential; it is just that tramping around Baricco's narrative can be tough going at times, and it does take a while to find your bearings. The author has stated that he wanted "to write a book that moved like someone who gets lost in the city... the stories are neighbourhoods, the characters are streets". What this means is that the place is packed with weird caricatures and unreliable narrators, none of whom are interested in giving intelligible directions. You might take this to signify that a city is a loose agglomeration of several different districts, whereas City is a loose agglomeration of several different books.
At the centre of City is the gnomic figure of Gould: a freakish 15-year-old with an oversized intellect who lopes around with his - possibly imaginary - cronies, Diesel, a giant, and Poomerang, a mute. Abandoned by his parents as altogether too much of a handful, Gould becomes the responsibility of a pretty part-time telephone operative and writer of westerns called Shatzy Shell. Together they resolve to see the world in a yellow trailer, until it occurs to them that in order to accomplish this it will be necessary to attach it to a car.
Interwoven with this is the surprisingly gripping spaghetti western that Shatzy periodically dictates into her tape recorder, an oblique boxing commentary, and various samples of the intellectual efforts of Gould's university professors. The latter gives Baricco free rein to digress on subjects as diverse as Monet's waterlillies and the topography of rivers, and to offer a lengthy disquisition on intellectual honesty.
All of which would be intolerable if the writing were not so unfailingly effervescent and so enthusiastically transmitted by Ann Goldstein's chatty translation. Intellectually voracious though it is, the unbuttoned tone is closer to that of Julian Barnes's A History of the World..., or even Douglas Adams's Dirk Gently books, than to the severe obliquities of Umberto Eco. In Italy the book has become a cult, and there is even a website where readers post their own often wildly incompatible exegeses.
Personally, I reckon the key to it all is billiards. Silk featured an enigmatic mill owner who played billiards against himself with one arm behind his back, and vowed to leave town for ever the day his weaker arm should win. Gould adopts the image of himself as a billiard ball, rolling with geometric certainty towards fame and success. Unfortunately, as Baricco comments, Gould is a minor, otherwise "a single evening at Merry's Pool Hall could have furnished him with useful hints on the inevitable incursion of chance into any geometric figure". It is this kind of authorial sleight of hand that will endear Baricco to some and infuriate others. But City stands as a laudable attempt to create a 21st-century Tristram Shandy.