| 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?