"The Book of Salt"
(Reviewed by Poornima Apte MAR 31,2003)
The novel starts in the year 1934 in Paris. Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas are about to leave their adopted city for their home country, America. For the past five years, they have employed the services of chef Binh, a young Vietnamese exile. Binh must now decide if he wants to stay behind in Paris, leave for America, or return to Vietnam. In order to arrive at his decision, he must evaluate the past and sets out for the reader an entirely engrossing tale.
The Book of Salt has two narrative threads flowing through it. In the first, chef Binh tells us about his present life at 27 rue de Fleurus, home to Stein and Toklas, and the details of how he got there. In the second, Binh reaches back to his Vietnam days and recounts what it is that happened that made him leave for Paris in the first place. As he explains, "to take one's body and willingly set it upon the open sea, this for me is not an act brought about by desire but a consequence of it, maybe."
In 1929, an outcast Binh who has been variously employed in Paris responds to an ad in the paper: "Live-In Cook: Two American ladies wish to retain a cook-27 rue de Fleurus. See the concierge." Alice Toklas and Getrude Stein take him in and soon Thin Bin (as Stein names him) is a permanent fixture at 27. As he watches the famous lesbian couple host tea parties and entertain the Parisian intelligentsia, Binh narrates their everyday doings with a sense of detachment laced nevertheless with a wry sense of humor. Here Truong relies heavily on established facts about Stein and Toklas. The two come across as having a very strange marriage where Gertrude Stein liked to be domineering and fussed over by her "wifey," Alice Toklas. Binh's accounts of his life in Paris (he meets the famous Ho Chi Minh and Paul Robeson here) are interlaced with his memories of his homeland.
Binh's memories of his childhood in Vietnam slowly outline the reason for his forced exile. He is the last of four boys born to a severely abusive father and a subservient mother. When he comes of age, Binh and his family discover his sexuality -- he is gay, a disease in Vietnam that "didn't have a cure." He is forced out of home by his father. Cast adrift, Binh takes to the sea and is surprised when he finds himself in Paris: "I wanted the deepest water because I wanted to slip into it and allow the moon's reflection to swallow me whole," he explains, "I never meant to go this far. What I meant was that I had no intention of reaching shore."
For all of his years in Paris, Binh wanders around trying to reconcile his past with his present. He has no fond memories of Vietnam: "A melancholic aside (is not) a bout of nostalgia. The latter honors the past. I am merely regretting it," he explains. At the same time, he is only too aware of his social status and the color of his skin in French society:
"(My body) marks me, announces my weakness, displays it as yellow skin. It flagrantly tells my story, or a compacted, distorted version of it, to passersby curious enough to cast their eyes my way. It stunts their creativity, dictates to them the limited list of whom I could be. Foreigner, asiatique, and, this being Mother France, I must be Indochinese. Every day when I walk the streets of this city, I am just that. I am an Indochinese laborer, generalized and indiscriminate, easily spotted and readily identifiable all the same. It is this curious mixture of careless disregard and notoriety that makes me long to take my body into a busy Saigon marketplace and lose it in the crush. There, I tell myself, I was just a man, anonymous, and, at a passing glance, a student, a gardener, a poet, a chef, a prince, a porter, a doctor, a scholar. But in Vietnam, I tell myself, I was above all just a man."
As Binh watches Stein and Toklas together, one wonders if he detects the irony of his situation. In exile because of his own homosexuality, he must now serve two women with the same "disease." If he does, he hides it well. Binh's acceptance of his forced servitude is brilliantly done by Truong. "They all believe in a "secret" ingredient, a balm for their Gallic pride, a magic elixir that anyone can employ to duplicate my success," he remarks, "if there is a secret, Madame, it is this: Repetition and routine. Servitude and subservience. Beck and call."
Some of the most vivid moments in The Book of Salt come from Truong's painful rendering of Binh's abuse at the hands of his father. "A stick of wood thicker than my arm splintered into my skin," he recounts, "Lately, a chair leg shoved into my Adam's apple. Though it was true that as I grew older, the Old Man had become less reliant on physical violence to get his points across, or maybe I had grown more adept at dodging his blows. Either way, the damage had been done. In the end, words were easier for him. They took less of his time, and they tore through the same skin." Despite the endless abuse (or maybe because of it), Binh retains a heartbreaking faith, a hope that "because my life came from his, my father, while cruel in action and brutal in speech, could never be so in heart."
Faith, hope, abuse, love, exile-these are weighty issues even one of which should suffice in a novel. Truong has expertly addressed all of these and done so in flawless prose. The novel ends with a ray of hope however tenuous, and a self-realized closure for Binh. "Faith, after all, is a theory of love and redemption," admits Binh, "in my life, there was no vessel more empty of that than you, Old Man." The Book of Salt is an absolutely satisfying novel, rich with all the nuances of the word "salt" -- kitchen, sweat, tears, and sea. It is a book to be read slowly, savoring every wonderful morsel. You will surely go back for seconds.
- Amazon readers rating: from 43 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The Book of Salt at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Wikipedia page on Monique Truong
- Interview with Monique Truong
- 27 Rue De Fleurus (with photos)
- MostlyFiction.com review of Bitter in the Mouth
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About the Author:
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.