Friday, May 24, 2013

The Book of Salt

Monique Truong, author of The Book of Salt, is a gifted young writer born in Vietnam in 1968. Her parents emigrated to the United States when Truong was 6 years old. The themes of alienation and longing for the homeland are familiar ones to her and play a significant role in this book.

When Truong was an undergraduate at Yale, she bought a copy of the Alice B. Toklas Cook Book in search of a hash brownie recipe. What she discovered was an unappealing recipe contained within a memoir. In a chapter entitled, "Servants in France," Toklas complains about the unreliability of hired help. She writes that she and Gertrude Stein, her life partner, place an ad in a Paris newspaper seeking a live-in cook. A Vietnamese man, Trac, applies for the job and is hired. He remains with the family for the next five years. Christopher Benfey, of The New York Times, conveys the sense of whimsy that soon befell the Stein-Toklas household. As he quotes from the Cook Book:"(Trac) would say, not a cherry, when he spoke of a strawberry and a pineapple was a pear not a pear." "Trac's inventive use of negatives slips directly into Toklas's prose: 'It was then that we commenced our insecure, unstable, unreliable but thoroughly enjoyable experience with the Indo-Chinese.' " (The New York Times, "Ordering In," April 06, 2003)

Monique Truong takes this mere footnote and creates a living, breathing character from it. Binh, called Thin Binh by Gertrude Stein, is the narrator of our tale. We first meet him in 1934 in Paris, as he waits with Stein and Toklas to begin their journey back to the states. He has now been employed by them for the past five years. Binh must decide if he wishes to depart with them or remain in his adopted homeland, France. Or, should he simply return to his native Vietnam? The narrative weaves from present to past as Binh weighs his options and tries to come to terms with his life.

Binh was the youngest of four sons born to a kind mother and an abusive Catholic cleric. He was taught both French and the culinary arts by his eldest brother, a seus chef in the home of the French governor-general in Vietnam. But after an affair with the French chef, Binh loses his job and is disowned by his father. He ultimately comes to Paris with nothing but poverty and regret.

Truong depicts the period of time in Vietnam when it was a French Protectorate (1802-1945). Some of her most poignant passages are of Binh's recollections of his life in the poor, rural village of his birth. She contrasts it with the literary life of American Ex-Patriots in Paris during the 1920s. Among some of the guests at the Stein-Toklas household were F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and John Dos Passos, Henry Matisse and Pablo Picasso. Their soirees at the famed 27 rue de Fleurus were ripe with avante guard artists and modernist thought.

Through fiction, Monique Truong has allowed Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas and some of the period's "greats" to come alive once again. But above all, she has created a poignant novel that explores the meaning of home and its relationship to food. Truong's evocative language teases the senses on all levels. Read it and enjoy.

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