Book of Salt
By Monique Truong
Published by Houghton Mifflin Co
April 2003; 0618304002; 272 pages
Of that day I have two photographs and, of course, my memories.
We had arrived at the Gare du Nord with over three hours to spare. There were, after all, a tremendous number of traveling cases and trunks. It took us two taxi rides from the apartment to the train station before all the pieces could be accounted for. A small group of photographers, who had gathered for the occasion, volunteered to watch over the first load while we returned to the rue de Fleurus for more. My Mesdames accepted their offer without hesitation. They had an almost childlike trust in photographers. Photographers, my Mesdames believed, transformed an occasion into an event. Their presence signaled that importance and fame had arrived, holding each others hands. Their flashing cameras, like the brilliant smiles of long- lost friends, had quickly warmed my Mesdames collective heart. More like friends too new to trust, I had thought. I had been with my Mesdames for half a decade by then. The photographers had not been there from the very beginning. But once the preparation for the journey began, they swarmed to the entrance of 27 rue de Fleurus like honeybees. I could easily see why my Mesdames cultivated them. Every visit by a photographer would be inevitably followed by a letter enclosing a newspaper or magazine clipping with my Mesdames names circled in a halo of red ink. The clippings, each carefully pressed with a heated iron, especially if a crease had thoughtlessly fallen on my Mesdames faces, went immediately into an album with a green leather cover. Green is the color of envy, my Mesdames told me. At this, knowing looks shot back and forth between them, conveying what can only be described as glee. My Mesdames communicated with each other in cryptic ways, but after all my years in their company I was privy to their keys. Green meant that they had waited desperately for this day, had tired of seeing it arriving on the doorsteps of friends and mere acquaintances; that the album had been there from the very beginning, impatient but biding its time; that they were now thrilled to fill it with family photographs of the most public kind. Green meant no longer their own but other peoples envy.
I know that it may be difficult to believe, but it took the arrival of the photographers for me to understand that my Mesdames were not, well, really mine; that they belonged to a country larger than any that I had ever been to; that its people had a right to embrace and to reclaim them as one of their own. Of course, 27 rue de Fleurus had always been filled with visitors, but that was different. My Mesdames enjoyed receiving guests, but they also enjoyed seeing them go. Many had arrived hoping for a permanent place around my Mesdames tea table, but I always knew that after the third pot they would have to leave. My Mesdames had to pay me to stay around. A delicious bit of irony, I had always thought. The photographers, though, marked the beginning of something new. This latest crop of admirers was extremely demanding and altogether inconsolable. They, I was stunned to see, were not satisfied with knocking at the door to 27 rue de Fleurus, politely seeking entrance to sip a cup of tea. No, the photographers wanted my Mesdames to go away with them, to leave the rue de Fleurus behind, to lock it up with a key. At the Gare du Nord that day, all I could think about were the flashes of the cameras, how they had never stopped frightening me. They were lights that feigned to illuminate but really intended to blind. Lightning before a driving storm, I had thought. But I suppose that was the sailors apprehension in me talking. It had been eleven years since I had made a true ocean crossing. For my Mesdames, it had been over thirty. The ocean for them was only a memory, a calming blue expanse between here and there. For me it was alive and belligerent, a reminder of how distance cannot be measured by the vastness of the open seas, that that was just the beginning.
When my Mesdames first began preparing for the journey, they had wanted to bring Basket and Pépé along with them. The SS Champlain gladly accommodated dogs and assorted pets, just as long as they were accompanied by a first-class owner. The problem, however, was America. No hotels or at least none on their itinerary would accept traveling companions of the four-legged kind. The discussion had been briefly tearful but above all brief. My Mesdames had in recent years become practical. Even the thought of their beloved poodle and Chihuahua languishing in Paris, whimpering, or, in the case of the Chihuahua, yapping, for many months if not years to come, even this could not postpone the journey home. There was certainly no love lost between me and those dogs, the poodle Basket especially. My Mesdames bought him in Paris at a dog show in the spring of 1929. Later that same year, I too joined the rue de Fleurus household. I have always suspected that it was the closeness of our arrivals that made this animal behave so badly toward me. Jealousy is instinctual, after all. Every morning, my Mesdames insisted on washing Basket in a solution of sulfur water. A cleaner dog could not have existed anywhere else. Visitors to the rue de Fleurus often stopped in midsentence to admire Baskets fur and its raw-veal shade of pink. At first, I thought it was the sulfur water that had altered the color of His Highnesss curly white coat. But then I realized that he was simply losing his hair, that his sausage-casing skin had started to shine through, an embarrassing peep show no doubt produced by his morning baths. My Mesdames soon began dressing Basket in little capelike outfits whenever guests were around.
I could wash and dress myself, thank you. Though, like Basket, I too had a number of admirers. Well, maybe only one or two. Pépé the Chihuahua, on the other hand, was small and loathsome. He was hardly a dog, just all eyes and a wet little nose. Pépé should have had no admirers, but he, like Basket, was a fine example of how my Mesdames affections were occasionally misplaced. Of course, my Mesdames asked me to accompany them. Imagine them extending an invitation to Basket and Pépé and not me. Never. We, remember, had been together for over half a decade by then. I had traveled with them everywhere, though in truth that only meant from Paris to their summer house in Bilignin. My Mesdames were both in their fifties by the time I found them. They had lost their wanderlust by then. A journey for them had come to mean an uneventful shuttle from one site of comfort to another, an automobile ride through the muted colors of the French countryside. Ocean travel changed everything. My Mesdames began preparing for it months in advance. They placed orders for new dresses, gloves, and shoes. Nothing was extravagant, but everything was luxurious: waistcoats embroidered with flowers and several kinds of birds, traveling outfits in handsome tweeds with brown velvet trims and buttons, shoes identical except for the heels and the size. The larger pair made only a slight effort at a lift. They were schoolgirlish in their elevation but mannish in their proportion. The smaller pair aspired to greater but hardly dizzying heights. Both my Mesdames, remember, were very concerned about comfort.
Well take a train from Paris to Le Havre, where the SS Champlain will be docked. From there, the Atlantic will be our host for six to seven days, and then New York City will float into view. From New York, well head north to Massachusetts, then south to Maryland and Virginia, then west to Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Texas, California, all the way to the shores of the Pacific and then, maybe, back again. As my Mesdames mapped the proposed journey, the name of each cityNew York, Boston, Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago, Houston, San Franciscowas a sharp note of excitement rising from their otherwise atonal flats. Their voices especially quivered at the mention of the airplanes. They wanted to see their America from a true twentieth-century point of view, they told the photographers. Imagine, they said to each other, a flight of fancy was no longer just a figure of speech. They wondered about the cost of acquiring one for their very own, a secondhand plane of course. My Mesdames were still practical, after all.
I was somewhat superstitious. I thought that fate must have also been listening in on this reverie about travel and flight. How could I not when the letter arrived at the rue de Fleurus later on that same day? It was quite an event. My Mesdames handed me the envelope on a small silver tray. They said that they had been startled to realize that they had never seen my full name in writing before. What probably startled them more was the realization that during my years in their employment I had never received a piece of correspondence until this one. I did not have to look at the envelope to know. It was from my oldest brother. No one else back there would have known where to find me, that 27 rue de Fleurus was my home. I sniffed the envelope before opening it. It smelled of a faraway city, pungent with anticipation for rain. If my Mesdames had not been in the room, I would have tasted it with my tongue. I was certain to find the familiar sting of salt, but what I needed to know was what kind: kitchen, sweat, tears or the sea. I wanted this paper- shrouded thing to divulge itself to me, to tell me even before the words emerged why it had taken my brother almost five years to respond to my first and only letter home.
I had written to him at the end of 1929. I was drunk, sitting alone in a crowded café. That December was a terrible month to be in Paris. All my favorite establishments were either overly crowded or pathetically empty. People either sipped fine vintages in celebration or gulped intoxicants of who cares what kind, drowning themselves in a lack of moderation, raising a glass to lower inhibitions, imbibing spirits to raise their own. The expressions abounded, but that December the talk everywhere was the same: The Americans are going home. Better yet, those who had not were no longer so cocky, so overweening with pride. Money, everyone was saying, is required to keep such things alive. It was true, the Americans were going home, and that, depending on who you were, was a cause to rejoice or a cause to mourn.
The citys le mont-de-piété, for instance, were doing a booming business. Mountains of mercy, indeed. So French, so snide to use such a heaping load of poetic words to refer to pawnshops, places filled with everything of value but never with poetry. The pawnshops in Paris were swamped, I had heard, with well-made American suits. At the end of October when it all began, there were seersuckers, cotton broadcloths, linens. Hardly a sacrifice at that time of the year, I thought. Paris was already too cool for such garb. I have always thought it best to pawn my lightweight suits when the weather changed. It provided protection from hungry moths and a saving on mothballs. My own hunger also played a somewhat deciding role. But by the beginning of that winter it became clear. The Americans were pawning corduroys, three-ply wools, flannel-lined tweeds. Seasonal clothing could only mean one thing. Desperation was demanding more closet space. Desperation was extending its stay. The end of 1929 also brought with it frustration, heard in and around all the cafés, about the months worth of unpaid bar tabs, not to mention the skipped-out hotel bills or the overdue rents. The funds from home never made it across the Atlantic, the departing Americans had claimed. The funds from home were never sent or, worse, no longer enough, everyone in Paris by then knew. Americans, not just here but in America, had lost their fortunes. An evil little wish had come true. The Parisians missed the money all right, but no one missed the Americans. Though I heard that in the beginning there had been sympathy. When the Americans first began arriving, the Parisians had even felt charitable toward them. These lost souls, after all, had taken flight from a country where a bottle of wine was of all things contraband, a flute of champagne a criminal offense. But when it became clear that the Americans had no intention of leaving and no intention of ever becoming sober, the Parisians wanted their city back. But it was already too late. The pattern of behavior had become comically clear. Americans traveled here in order to indulge in the vices of home. First, they had invaded the bordellos and then it was the cafés. Parisians could more than understand the whoring and the drinking, but in the end it was the hypocrisy that did not translate well.
But there are still the Russians, Hungarians, Spaniards . . . not nearly as well endowed but in other ways so charmingly equipped. The laughter that immediately followed this observation told me that the table next to mine was commenting on more than just money. When gathered in their cafés, Parisians rarely spoke of money for very long. They exhausted the topic with one or two words. Sex, though, was an entirely different story, an epic really. I always got my gossip and my world news for that matter from the cafés. It would certainly take me awhile, but the longer I stayed the more I was able to comprehend. Alcohol, I had learned, was an eloquent if somewhat inaccurate interpreter. I had placed my trust that December night in glass after glass of it, eager not for drink but for a bit of talk. I also had that night no other place I had to be, so I sat and stared at the cigarette-stained walls of the café until my wallet was empty, my bladder was full, and until I was very drunk. Worse, the alcohol had deceived me, made me promises and then refused to follow through. In the past the little glasses had blurred the jagged seams between the French words, but that night they magnified and sharpened them. They threatened to rip and to tear. They bullied me with questions, sneering at how I could sit there stealing laughter, lifting conversations, when it was now common knowledge that the Americans are going home. Panic then abruptly took over the line of questioning: Would my new Mesdames go with them? Or, maybe, the question was just a matter of When?
I did not remember asking the waiter for pencil and paper, but I must have, as I never carry such items in my pockets. The cafés used to give them out for free. So French to sell water and to give such luxuries away. The content of my letter was dull, crammed with details only my oldest brother would be interested in: my health, the cost of underwear and shoes, the price of a métro ticket, my weekly wage, the menu of my last meal, rain bouncing off the face of Notre-Dame, Paris covered by a thin sheet of snow. I had forgotten how different my language looks on paper, that its letters have so little resemblance to how they actually sound. Words, most I had not spoken for years, generously gave themselves to me. Fluency, after all, is relative. On that sheet of paper, on another side of the globe, I am fluent. The scratching of the pen, the writhing of the paper, I did not want it to stop, but I was running out of room. So I wrote it in the margin: My Mesdames may be going home. I do not want to start all over again, scanning the help-wanteds, knocking on doors, walking away alone. I am afraid. I had meant to place a comma between alone and I am afraid. But on paper, a period instead of a comma had turned a dangling token of regret into a plainly worded confession. I could have fixed it with a quick flick of lead, but then I read the sentences over again and thought, That is true as well.
The first line of my brothers response startled me, made me wonder whether he wrote it at all. It is time for you to come home to Viet Nam, he declared in a breathtaking evocation of the Old Mans voice, complete with his spine-snapping ability to stifle and to control. But the lines that followed made it clear who had held the pen: You are my brother and that is all. I do not offer you my forgiveness because you never had to apologize to me. I think of you often, especially at the Lunar New Year. I hope to see you home for the next. A good meal and a red packet await you. So do I. The letter was dated January 27, 1934. It had taken only a month for his letter to arrive at the rue de Fleurus. He offered no explanation for his delay in writing except to say that everything at home had changed. He wrote that it would have been better for me to hear it all in person. What he meant was that paper was not strong enough to bear the weight of what he had to say but that he would have to test its strength anyway. At the edge of that sheet of paper, on the other side of the globe, my brother signed his name. And then, as if it were an afterthought, he wrote the words safe journey where the end should have been. I folded my brothers letter and kept it in the pocket of my only and, therefore, my finest cold-weather suit. I wore them both to the Gare du Nord that day. The suit was neatly pressed, if a bit worn. The letter was worse off. The oils on my fingertips, the heat of my body, had altered its physical composition. The pages had grown translucent from the repeated handling, repetitive rereading. The ink had faded to purple. It was becoming difficult to read. Though in truth, my memory had already made that act obsolete.
The first photograph of the journey was taken there at the station. It shows my Mesdames sitting side by side and looking straight ahead. They are waiting for the train to Le Havre, chitchatting with the photographers, looking wide-eyed into the lens. They wear the same expression as when they put on a new pair of shoes. They never immediately get up and walk around. They prefer to sit and let their toes slowly explore where the leather gives and where it binds. A pleasurable exercise for them, I am certain, as they always share a somewhat delinquent little smile. I am over there on the bench, behind them, on the left-hand side. I am the one with my head lowered, my eyes closed. I am not asleep, just thinking, and that for me is sometimes aided by the dark. I am a man unused to choices, so the months leading up to that day at the Gare du Nord had subjected me to an agony, sharp and new, self-inflicted and self-prolonged. I had forgotten that discretion can feel this way.
I sometimes now look at this photograph and wonder whether it was taken before or after. Pure speculation at this point, I know. Though I seem to remember that once I had made up my mind, I looked up instinctually, as if someone had called out my name. If that is true, then the photograph must have been taken during the moments before, when my heart was beating a hard, syncopated rhythm, like those of the approaching trains, and all I could hear in the darkness was a simple refrain:
I do not
want to start all over again.
Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
In Paris, 1934, Bình has accompanied his employers, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, to the train station for their departure to America. His own destination is unclear: will he go with the Steins, stay in France, or return to his native Vietnam? Having fled his homeland in disgrace, Bình has spent the past five years serving as the personal cook at the famous apartment on the rue de Fleurus. Before Bình reveals his decision, he catapults back to his youth in French-colonized Vietnam, his years as a galley hand at sea, and his days turning out repasts for the doyennes of the Lost Generation. With wry insight, he views the Steins ensconced in rueful domesticity. But is Bìnhs account reliable? A lost soul, he is a late-night habitué of the Paris demimonde, an exile and an alien, a man of musings and memories, and, possibly, lies. Love is the prize that has eluded him, from his family to the men he has sought out in his far-flung journeys. Intricate, compelling, and witty, the novel weaves in historical characters, from Stein and Toklas to Paul Robeson and Ho Chi Minh, with remarkable originality. Flavors, seas, sweat, tears The Book of Salt is an inspired feast of storytelling riches.(back to top)
Monique Truong was born in Saigon in 1968 and moved to the United States at age six. She graduated from Yale University and the Columbia University School of Law, going on to specialize in intellectual property. Truong coedited the anthology Watermark: Vietnamese American Poetry and Prose, and her essay "Welcome to America" was featured on National Public Radio. Granting her an award of excellence, the Vietnamese American Studies Center at San Francisco State University called her "a pioneer in the field, as an academic, an advocate, and an artist." She was awarded a prestigious Lannan Foundation writing residency in 2001.