(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Monique Truong’s first novel, The Book of Salt, is a remarkably inventive fictional account of a Vietnamese cook whom Truong appropriated from several pages of the celebrated expatriate American writer Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas. It seems that Truong, a Vietnamese American, was browsing through The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook (1954) when, in the chapter titled “Servants in France,” she came across Toklas’s account of two Vietnamese who had worked for the Gertrude Stein ménage. Toklas’s account of these Vietnamese can be found between her recipes for Alexandra Salad and Covered Cock with Cumin; Stein also mentions them in the chapter “Preparations for Going to America” in Everybody’s Autobiography (1937).

Toklas’s sketch fired Truong’s imagination, causing her to wonder what these Vietnamese men might have been like—their experiences, their thoughts. Her musing bore fruit in a short story with the diasporic title of “Seeds” (1998). That story now forms the second chapter of The Book of Salt. From this genesis, Truong has crafted a witty and finely wrought novel about a complicated man living in the 1920’s and 1930’s in France and Vietnam. In telling her tale, Truong has also woven into it many larger thematic strands, such as language, colonialism, racism, and same-sex relationships.

Toklas’s account of one Vietnamese servant describes his difficulties with the French language. He would, for instance, forget the French word for pineapple and call it “a pear not a pear.” Truong dramatizes this in a scene where Gertrude Stein (notorious for her defining “Rose is a rose is a rose”) has become habituated to quizzing her inarticulate Vietnamese cook about the names of things. After running the gamut of foods, animals, and household objects, Truong’s GertrudeStein (which is how the novel spells the fictionalized character’s name) asks her cook a question some Stein readers might well ask her: “How would you define ‘love’?” Troung’s cook thinks (and Truong’s cook can think), “Ah, . . . a classic move from the material to the spiritual. GertrudeStein . . . wants to see the stretch marks on my tongue.” Then this unschooled Vietnamese man breaks out into eloquence without breaking his silence. In a gesture of (non)expression that might resonate with Pablo Picasso (Stein’s friend and portraitist), or an Imagist writer, the cook narrates: “I point to a table on which several quinces sit yellowing in a blue and white china bowl. I shake my head in their direction, and I leave the room, speechless.” This curiosity about the quiddities of existence and identity is one of the concerns of Truong’s novel. Troung’s protagonist, who is also the novel’s narrator, calls himself Binh (which means “Peace”), but that is not his real name (which he never divulges)—like the unnamable thing that is called a pear but not a pear, or love—only not love.

The language of Binh’s narrative is not the language that proceeds from the mouth of Binh the protagonist. Binh has only a sketchy Vietnamese education and a pinch of scullery French. The language of Binh’s narrative, however, is far richer and more expressive than his elementary education. For instance, in describing GertrudeStein’s eyes, Binh’s narrative is lofty, almost precious:

I look into her eyes. They live apart from their housing. Chasing the light that gilds this city in early autumn, her irides are two nets gently swooping over a band of butterflies. Catching the light, the circles erupt, bright with movement, the flapping and fanning of many colored wings.

There is a similar vivid delicacy in this sketch of Toklas: “She was thirty, and she had never heard the bells of genius, never felt their vibrations against the walls of her veins and arteries.” Unlike the mimetic narrative language of the butler-narrator in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day(1989) or that of the pharmacist-narrator in Chang-rae Lee’s A Gesture Life (1999), the language of Binh the narrator is not that of Binh the character. Rather, it is what Truong in an interview describes as his “internal voice, one which is far richer, far more agile— . . . a stark contrast to the voice that comes out of his mouth.” The external, heard language of Binh the character is, then, equivalent to Caliban’s in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611); the internal, inaudible language of Binh the narrator has, on the other hand, Miranda’s sensibility and Prospero’s perceptiveness.

This internal versus external dialogic of language points to social and political causes. Binh is tongue-tied because of his colonial subjectivity as a Vietnamese (Indochinese) in the French Empire and socioeconomic...

(The entire section is 1968 words.)