Sunday, December 15, 2013

"The Book of Salt"

A decade ago, a colleague told me about Monique Truong's The Book of Salt (2003).  It's a novel told from the perspective of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas' Vietnamese cook.

So of course I wanted to read it.

I started the novel this summer, and for some reason, I couldn't get into it.  I'm not sure why, because last weekend, I picked it up and read it in about 3 days.  I thought it was an interesting and beautifully written novel, actually.

I should have blogged about it last weekend, though, because now I'm struggling to figure out how to put into words exactly what it is that I enjoyed about this novel. 

Truong interweaves the ideas of writing, cooking, sexuality and identity: the narrator, Binh, was employed as a "garde-manger" in a French Governor-General's house in Saigon; Binh's older brother was employed as the sous-chef who hoped to one day be installed as the chef de cuisine.  He is passed over, however, when the Governor-General insists on bringing a chef from Paris--the implication is that no Vietnamese chef could ever hope to prepare French food the way a Frenchman would.

Binh is eventually forced to leave the Governor-General's home and, when he is disowned by his father, he boards a ship and travels extensively, eventually arriving in Paris in 1929.  He answers an ad for a cook and is installed at 27 Rue de Fleurus, the famous home of Modernist writer Gertrude Stein and her lover, Alice B. Toklas.

Binh reflects extensively on what it means to speak a language not one's own and what it means to be forced into silence; to be exiled from a home to which one never fully belonged and identified with the very things from which one is ostracized.

I can't help but think that one of the reasons I enjoyed the novel more when I restarted it last weekend is because the food imagery resonated more fully with me, given the season (excuse the pun).  But also, as Truong's novel unfolds, additional layers of complexity are revealed and part of the enjoyment of the novel--for me, at least--eventually lay in watching how those layers overlapped and interconnected.

Truong's dialogue with Modernism is extremely interesting.  She plays with the tensions between French, American and Vietnamese culture--Stein is an American expatriate living in Paris; she is frequently identified as one of the key writers of the Modernist literary movement.  The reader can't help but notice the essential silence and invisibility of Binh's presence in the Stein-Toklas home and reflect on how quickly the world will change.

In the ensuing decades, the French will be forced to abandon their colonial holdings in Indochina and Americans will quickly become aware of the existence of Vietnam in ways they could never have foreseen.

Truong's novel is extremely lyrical.  The novel revels in the idea of language and translation: Binh frequently remarks on the fact that his own native language is essentially incomprehensible and unpronounceable to the French colonialists who govern Vietnam, and yet, despite his increasing facility with French, he is permanently identified as culturally and linguistically inferior.

Truong employs the motif of linguistic nuance--the idea that context and significance can be lost in a literal translation of one's words--to good effect.  In one particularly humorous instance, Binh reflects on the undercurrents of deceit and sexual jealousy that run rife in the Governor-General's house in Saigon.  He remarks,
Given her French father, we in the household staff felt that Madame's secretary should have been more beautiful, but she was not. ... I suspect that her beauty or what passed for it ... was her father's French.  She spoke it from birth and it showed.  There were rumors that she wrote it beautifully as well, and that it was she who composed Madame's more delicate rejections and affecting apologies.  Madame's secretary, according to the chauffeur, on occasion also wrote speeches for the Governor-General.  We in the household staff did not know what to make of this boast, uncertain whether we were dealing with a French expression that had lost itself in translation.  We thought that, maybe, "writing speeches" for the Governor-General was just another way of saying that Madame's secretary was graciously offering her services to him as well.  What kind of services these were would depend on the kind of woman Madame's secretary wanted to be. (124-125)
I've quoted this passage at length because I think it's typical of the complex progression of Truong's narrative.  Each sentence adds a layer to the emerging sexual, cultural and linguistic situations, both past and present, that Binh faces.  By moving the reader through each of these layers and unearthing their simultaneous moments of sadness and humor, Truong complicates our perspective on the identity politics of exile.

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Aix-les-Bains, France, c. 1927;
Source: http://www.npg.si.edu/exhibit/stein/domestic.html

Truong's novel is probably not for everyone: I think most people who enjoy and study literature will enjoy the novels (often humorous) reflections on Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas.  For me, though, these were the less interesting moments of the novel, actually, and one of the reasons it may not have immediately jelled with me the first time I tried to read it.

Because quite frankly, I'm not a fan of Gertrude Stein.  I think she's vastly overrated as a writer, and I tend to find her "experimental" writing downright annoying.  I remember sitting through more than one literature class on Modernism in which we were assigned to read Three Lives and staring at Stein's "Melanctha" and thinking, "How is this good?  Or interesting?"

All this to say, I've had the "literary genius" of Gertrude Stein pointed out and explained to me over and over and over again, and all I can say is... I'll take Woolf or Joyce or Eliot (or pretty much anyone else) any day of the week.  But that's just me.

But with regards to Truong's novel, I would say that if you start it and don't immediately like it, keep going or put it down for a bit and try again later.  It's definitely worth a second chance.

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