a vietnamese feast — The Book of Salt by Monique Truong

image found here
image found here

[CN: Colonialism, racism]

The sting of salt in the sea, or on the breeze. The salt in the kitchen, in sweat, in tears, seminal fluids. This fabulous debut novel was recommended to me by a college friend. She regretfully informed me that it’s a cis male-centered narrative, but its treatment of gay and colonial experience puts it leagues ahead of the normie material ive been going to lately, as far as that sort of thing goes (i definitely need more recs from her in the future; her reading palate is a lot more decolonized than mine).

i was enthusiastic bc it’s an historical novel that involves Vietnam and Gertrude Stein, or GertrudeStein as she goes in the text, and Paris in the 30s. It turned out to be an incredibly sumptuous weaving of good food, intense intimacy, loss and longing. It was the kind of prose where certain paragraphs could work on their own as a poem — the membranes between the words and their meanings become porous. Albert Camus once remarked on the novel as being philosophy conveyed thru images. In this book the nonlinear narrative and ruminative tone bring all of its themes into a congealed whole.

So a lot of this blog is gonna come off as raving, as THE BOOK OF SALT offered for me a lot of really exciting possibilities for contemporary historical fiction. It taps into frontier historical concepts, and its style moves away somewhat from transparent naturalism while not being an Ultra-Difficult PoMo text. It’s also great if you’re interested in a same-sex romance novel without any sex, yet exploding with eros. It’s in the language.

Bình, our narrator, is a Vietnamese cook, and we find him working as the private chef for GertrudeStein and Alice B. Toklas. He shares with us wonderfully intimate moments and details in the couple’s domestic life — Toklas’s love of Spanish cuisine and mystique, GertrudeStein’s workflow on the dining table, their affinity for motorcars. Chapters alternate, but not in any rigorous way, between Bình’s time in France in the late 20s and early 30s, and his past in Vietnam, where he worked as a cook boy in a colonial government mansion and on an ocean liner.

The book also addresses a second-person “you,” although this “you” changes, and it’s clearer who the object of address is in some places more than others. Much of the time he is addressing his father, the “Old Man,” a real bastard, alcoholic, patriarchal. His voice haunts Bình continuously, and the cook’s resentment conflates the father with Catholicism (he is a pastor though he takes a wife) and more broadly the French colonial project. He also addresses his long suffering mother, whom he loves and misses. Other times this “you” are the couple for whom he cooks, the mesdames as he calls them.

And other times it can be one of the string of Bình’s lovers. We have Blériot, a French chef at the governor’s colonial mansion, whose love affair with Bình raises disgust not for its homosexuality so much as its interracial nature. There is also Bao, a partner met in the ship Bình works on as a galley hand. In Paris is “Sweet Sunday” or Mr. Lattimore, a half-black, apparently light-skinned (everything is tacit in this milieu) alternative physician encountered in the Steins’ sophisticated gatherings. And there is the mysterious Man on the Bridge, who is probably Ho Chi Minh, whose birthday was just observed on May 19, same as Malcolm X and Yuri Kochiyama.

We get intimate explorations of all of these men in Bình’s life. Bình’s voice can be really extravagant in its imagery and descriptions, and he’s also funny and snide. i can imagine some people calling it purple, but the narrative is about Bình’s navigation in the metropole which has taken him and his family as Vietnamese and turned them into “Indochinese.” Much is made of language and power.

Bình doesn’t feel more helpless than when he can only recognize his name amongst the French spoken or written by the Steins. At the same time, Bao shows him ways of subterfuge for the colonial subject by adopting fake names abroad, so that the French colonizers, proud of their ignorance in that way particular to white privilege, bark orders and insults to “I’m stupid” or “I love you,” when they utter the Vietnamese, atonally of course.

im not doing justice to how cool the writing is. here’s the opening to chapter 7:

Most messieurs and mesdames do not want to think about it. They would prefer to believe that their cooks have no bodily needs, secretions, not to mention excrement, but we all do. We are not all clean and properly sterile from head to toe. We come into their homes with our skills and our bodies, the latter a host for all the vermin and parasites that we have encountered along the way. I have seen chefs de cuisine who never wash their hands, never, not even after they stick their fingers into a succession of pots and suckle on them like piglets at their mother’s teats. I have seen pastry chefs who think nothing of sticking a finger into their ear, giving it a good swirl, and then working the wax into their buttery disks of dough. Merely a bad habit or a purposeful violation? The answer depends on their relationship with their Monsieur or Madame. When placed in such a context, my habit is not so bad. I have, of course, thought about it. The satisfaction that could be drawn from it. Saucing the meat, fortifying the soup, enriching a batch of blood orange sorbet, the possible uses are endless, undetectable.

It highlights the earthiness of Bình’s thoughts, but the rest of book is resplendent with surreal imagery, so that food and sex and salt and language and and work mix together in a potpourri of experiences.

im struggling to convey just how pleasurable it is to drift through Bình’s imagination, which itself seems to flip the bird at the metropolitan colonizing city that he calls home, with its linguistic imperialism. im also reading Cedric Robinson’s BLACK MARXISM, and in that book’s forward Robin Kelley mentions surrealist art. This movement was a way for Westerners to try to find a connection with the elements alienated from bourgeois culture, but what colonized subjects had all along — the unconscious, the spirit, the magic. And while you dont hear about this in art history class, many Black and PoC artists participated in this avant garde practice as a resistance to the colonial project.

This surreal/anti-colonial imagination weaves together the everydayness of Bình’s work with myth, which is especially embodied in the stories told by his mother. And we move from that to something like the antics with the Steins’ froufrou dogs, or cooking while drunk, or cooking while hungover. This tension btwn history/realism and romance/myth that i identify is part of the historical fiction tradition. Amy Elias’s work focuses on Walter Scott’s historical romance novels: historical representation is a product of Enlightenment values, but Scott’s work turns its gaze on the gaelic culture disappearing into the past. Scott accepts the stadialism of Western civ’s development as the Scottish enlightenment d00ds espoused, but he also valued that certain lost something of the “primitive” stages. The romantic strain has endured thru the genre, and here i think Truong takes it into a colonial framework.

Speaking of historical representation, there’s an interesting bit where he recounts casting off to sea for the first time:

Time for me had always been measured in terms of the rising sun, its setting sister, and the dependable cycle of the moon. But at sea, I learned that time can also be measured in terms of water, in terms of the distance traveled while drifting on it. When measured in this way, nearer and farther are the path of the time’s movement, not continuously forward along a fast straight line. When measured in this way, time loops and curlicues, and at any given moment it can spiral me away and then bring me rushing home again.

There’s a deep and sophisticated connection going on in the text between this space-oriented model of time and the non-Westernized view of the interconnectedness of the planet and all beings. The Western imagination views the body as an isolated system open to invasion, like a nation-state, in such a way that naturalizes xenophobia and fascist surveillance. Compare that to someone like the activist Katsi Cook, a Mohawk woman who works on mother’s milk quality, who once said “The waters of the earth and the waters of our bodies are the same water.” The same might be said about salt.

We move through these dimensions very fluidly and non-chronologically. Indeed the plot’s only motivation is a single unresolved issue, a critical decision Bình has to make. But as the novel unfolds you gain insights into the humanity of so many characters. the text is like an articulation of Bình’s longing for connection, reaching out towards lost loved ones, be they family, like his mother and favorite older brother, or his lost lovers. The book is something like an article of faith, that these souls are out there, that home will endure France’s rapacious presence, and that Bình’s words might reach these people, beyond nations, the grave, and history.

So it was hard to decide on a part to excerpt. i was strongly leaning towards the scene where Bình first meets the stranger on the bridge who is probably Ho Chi Minh and enjoy a Chinese meal together. But instead im going for one of the stories shared between Bình and his mother. The section opens with memories of Bình’s mother teaching him how to cook, and beautifully tender observations of the mother’s process of preparing bananas and rice on baked banana leaves.


The Book of Salt by Monique Truong

Her right hand dips into a basin of water, shaking from it a fragrant sheet of green. Her left hand skims a large bowl, where fragrant the raw rice has spent the night, cool underneath a blanket of water. She grabs a handful of grains, slowly spreading her fingers apart, letting the milky water drip and drain. She places what remains in her hand onto the middle of the leaf. I reach over and add thick slices of bananas, cut lengthwise in order to maximize the surface that is split and exposed from where their sweet juices will then flow. Each piece shows off two rows of black flecks, the distinctive markings of their tribe. “The darker black the seeds,” my mother says, “the riper the fruit.” Her left hand returns to the bowl for a second handful of kernels, which then completely cover the bananas. Her hands join together for a brief moment and leave behind a packet of green. She slides it over to me, and I wrap it with a length of fibrous grass. The streamer will finish the task.

While my mother’s hands followed a set routine, her stories never did. They were free to roam, to consider alternative routes, to invent their own ways home. Sometimes the “she” was a peasant girl bending over a bed of rice seedlings, which had yet to take root. “She” was occasionally a servant girl in the Imperial Palace, a noble face misplaced among the lowly rank and file. “She” was also a finishing village girl, who sat by the shore and darned the nets, who sang the same songs as her brothers but had never been allowed out to sea. “Home,” though, was always the same, the teak pavilion and the scholar-prince, a man who was first and foremost wise and kind. His handsome looks, my mother always mentioned as something of an aside. As I got older, I thought her brief description was unsatisfactory, and I began pressing her for details about the scholar-prince. The first time I asked about him, I was eleven. My mother smiled in response and called me her “little scholar-prince.” I sopped tying the packet in my hand.

“What? I am the scholar-prince?” I repeated, struggling to retain meaning in a fantasy turned upside down. As I sat wrapping and tying, I had never had a doubt. All this time, it was I who, in the end, got the scholar-prince, the teak pavilion, the shadow-graced embraces. I was, of course, the peasant, the servant, the fishing villager, except that in my version the “she” was undoubtedly a “he.” The scholar-prince, I left as is, a man wise and kind. Though, in truth, in my version he was much more handsome than my mother could have ever imagined. My dear mother would have stopped the stories if she had known in whom I found solace and in whom I found love. So in order to hear her stories, to keep her voice in the room, I never told her that in my version I was a kitchen boy who skipped smooth shards of stone across a silent lake, that as they skimmed the water’s surface they would sing. The stones landed one by one each day at the feet of a scholar-prince, who strolled the shore, contemplating the water and its relationship to the sky. At first the scholar-prince was too immersed in his own thoughts to notice, but then the stone shards began to amass, noticeably altering, intruding upon his tranquil path. The scholar-prince interrupted his reverie and picked up a shard, and as he was about to fling it back into the lake, he noticed a single word cut into its surface. Intrigued, he examined the others and found that each bore the traces of a different word. He, being a scholar-prince, naturally recognized that they were the broken pieces of a poem. Love was the subject. He, being a man, thought it was a challenge and a game. The scholar-prince rearranged the stones and composed a response. He sent them skipping across the lake. Of course, the lake was “misty.” Some things are classic and should never be changed. Mist, as I had learned from my mother’s stories, allows unlikely lovers to meet and forbidden subjects to wander the land. In my stories, the lakes are in a perpetual state of mist or under heavy cover of ocean-borne fog. As the stones crossed and recrossed the lake, each one a fragment of a rippling, luminous poem, the scholar-prince fell deeply in love with the kitchen boy who was now a man, and in the end, well, the end for me is always the same.

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