By Monique Truong
I wonder where The Book of Salt is shelved at your local independent bookstore. You know, the one with all the categories. Asian? Gay/Lesbian? International? Post-colonial? Culinary? Memoir? Perhaps it’s where it should be, in Literary Fiction–because for all of its sexy, au courant themes, it surpasses them by being, to its credit, just a novel.
Exile and displacement; culinary fantasia à la Alice B. Toklas; the romance of French colonial Saigon and Gertrude Stein’s Paris–all as told from the perspective of the gay Vietnamese cook to those infamous American ladies. Monique Truong’s first novel transforms these disparate ingredients into a pleasurable literary repast, alternating courses between the domestic goings-on at 27 Rue de Fleurus and one-man’s self-exile from Saigon. The result, if not consistently pitch perfect, is undeniably piquant. Truong’s writing can be described with the same words she uses when writing about Toklas’ cooking: “absinthe in her salad dressing and rose petals in her vinegar.”
But enough with the gastronomic metaphors. The story commences with the narrator, Binh, on the verge of yet another life-changing decision. Should he stay in Paris–his seemingly arbitrary place of exile; go to America with his employers (Stein and Toklas, about to embark on Stein’s lecture series following the success of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas); or return to Vietnam? From there, Truong develops a fascinating exploration of language and storytelling, truth and lies, the machinations of memory severed from place, and the complexities of seeking a homecoming for the soul, if not the body.
Despite her imaginative and compelling rendering of Stein-Toklas and their household, she never allows the formidable presence of Binh’s “Mesdames” to overshadow the fact that this is Binh’s story. Rather, in a clever kind of reversal, she turns the cache and intrigue of that celebrated home and the American/Parisian literary expat scene into another exotic chapter in Binh’s own story. The Book of Salt reminds us why we need to hear the voices attached to the invisible hands that poured the wine and built the salons in the vast majority of English literature–not because of a misguided political correctness, but simply because the perspectives they provide are so rich and make for a great read.
That said, I confess that as much as I wanted to, I never entirely swallowed Binh’s narrative voice. I wondered if this was related to my own issues as a writer. As an educated, Asian-American, female immigrant writer perplexed by the problems of depicting uneducated, Asian male characters (representing another “Other,” as it were), I was deeply and immediately intrigued to see how Truong–an Ivy League-educated law-yer who came to the U.S. at age six–would handle Binh’s voice.
With that on the table (where it can be poked at and held up to the light for holes, biases, jealousy, etc.) my final analysis remains unchanged. The problem is Binh’s language, which moves from lovely, poetically spare philosophical musings, to an overwrought, highly cerebral preciousness, to a frustrated bitterness expressed in wry, vaguely risqué interior jags. Taken together, what emerges is a type and degree of self-awareness that I don’t buy. Not because that combination of qualities seems impossible or even unlikely for that character, but because of a self-consciousness in the prose, which at times strikes me as that of an educated contemporary woman, in love with language, and working a bit too hard to depict her protagonist. At the same time, one of the book’s major strengths is precisely Binh’s acute consciousness of and keen observations on language and how its manipulation conveys, creates, and distorts the “truth” of the stories we tell or the way we choose to remember and understand the past.
Binh’s own story is a patchwork of lies, half-truths, and re-creations–”I lie to myself like no one else can,”–that Truong magnificently manipulates in an essentially plot-less construction. Interweaving past and present with dreams and scattered samples from Binh’s endless store of absolute proclamations and lyrically philosophical musings (“intrigue, like salt, is best if it is there from the beginning,”), Truong manages to draw 261 pages from his initial dilemma and his recollection of everything that led up to it: his family’s abusive and poverty—stricken history, his training in the kitchen of Saigon’s Governor-general, various romances and other delusions of permanence, his time as a sailor wandering the globe; his years in Paris, both in and out of the Rue de Fleurus. Throughout these meanderings, Truong’s imaginative prowess makes the book a delight to read, despite any inconsistencies of voice.
In all Binh’s fantastic stories, his mind never strays far from issues of language, particularly as it functions as a barrier: “Departing at their will, the words of this language mock me with their impromptu absences.” Capitalizing on her literary and word-conscious milieu, Truong draws some lovely parallels between Binh and his employers, reminding us that they all share the fact of being expatriots. Like Binh, GertrudeStein (“Al-ways, ‘GertrudeStein.’ Just think of it as one word,” Binh is advised when he goes seeking work), operates with a minimal facility in French and takes an amused interest in Binh’s use of language. (He is fond of using the negative–”a pear, not pear,” he says, meaning a pineapple.) But while a rose is a rose is a rose, an expatriate is not an expatriate is not an expatriate. Because of their differences in race and class (and in spite of gender), Binh and “GertrudeStein” differ enormously in their status as expatriates–as Truong deftly indicates.
Through the examination of the master-servant dynamic that permeates this book (and Binh’s inner life), Truong subtly brings to light the colonialism and racism (and to a lesser extent, homophobia) that constantly impinges on Binh’s wish to be seen as “just a man.” In the eyes of the larger colonial world around him, his status as “Indochinese” trumps any other details of his life that might be relevant to who he is: “To them, my body offers an exacting, predetermined life story.”
Binh projects this desire to be recognized as “a whole man” onto the overarching fantasy controlling his geographical and psychological trajectory. His need for acceptance translates into his search for a “scholar prince”–the learned, gentle, and handsome man who will someday swoop into his life and save him from the drudgery and loneliness of his exiled, marginalized self. Binh repeatedly and knowingly deceives himself about the men he encounters. Yet he remains grounded and confident in his awareness of that deception, as well as in his consciousness of who and what he is, whether an “asiatique” in Paris or a gay man in a world favoring heterosexuality.
His search for love (acceptance, wholeness) is inseparable from his search for place and recalls the idea–particularly palpable to the expatriate, the dislocated, the exile–that in the end home is defined by love, not by geography. Truong understands this and handles the questions of “what made you leave?” and “what makes you stay?” with a rare depth and honesty, reminding us that there is never just one answer to either question and that they are both ultimately awash in the ever-shifting, uncertain impulse of life itself.
Lee Middleton is a fiction writer finishing her MA in creative writing at the University of Texas-Austin.