A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain Analysis
by Robert Olen Butler

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Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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Dao’s three main stories are tightly interlaced, reflecting the aging narrator’s inability to separate reality and fantasy, past and present. This intertwining of the three strands is reinforced with multiple patterns of imagery. The title of both the story and the book, “a good scent from a strange mountain,” demonstrates Butler’s method. The phrase is a translation of bao son ky huong, the saying of the Hoa Haos, the Buddhist sect to which Dao belongs. The story uses a variety of scents as vehicles for exploring the story’s main themes.

The narration begins and ends with fantasy sequences during which Dao is struck by the sweet smell of sugar on Ho’s hands. The smell presumably is related to the two men’s experience working in the kitchen of Monsieur Escoffier, the chef at the Carlton Hotel in London. The menial work in the European kitchen foreshadows the dismissive treatment Ho will receive from the diplomats at Versailles and, more broadly, that Vietnam will receive from the United States. As Ho remarks to Dao regarding the Americans’ treatment of the Vietnamese, “They had been repressed by colonialists themselves. Did they not know their own history?” The chef’s name, which contains the word “scoff,” extends both this theme and the extensive use of emblematic names in the story.

One of the threads of the conversation Dao fantasizes is Ho’s effort to remember the precise recipe for the glaze fondant. Butler works this sugar motif into the story in several ways. The sugar functions to blur the distinctions between fantasy and reality when Dao’s daughter finds the doorknob slightly sticky after Ho, his hands covered with sugar, has left the narrator’s room after one of their conversations. Just as the sweet smell of the sugar invokes shared history and positive connotations to complicate the antagonism between Ho and Dao, smells characterize and lend depth to Dao’s relation to other characters. At the moment of revealing to Ho that his son-in-law and grandson are involved in a political killing, he can no longer smell the sugar on Ho’s hands but only recall the sour smell of milk on his grandson’s breath, saying, “and I turned my face away from the smell of him.”

Ho’s forgetting the recipe for the glaze symbolizes the political revolutionary’s forgetting the idealism that had led him to initiate his revolutionary activity, further emphasizing the split between the Marxist Ho and Buddhist Dao. By the end of the story, Dao has recalled the missing element, and this completed glaze recipe is what Dao is presumably referring to in his final claim that he knows what Ho forgot. By this point in the story, the simple recipe has come to serve not only as a symbol of personal, familial, national, and international disharmony but also as the demonstration that Dao and Ho may have succeeded where their descendants have failed; they have engaged one another in conversation and accepted their fundamental differences.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

A Brief History of Twentieth-Century Vietnam
In 1859, France began to make inroads in Southeast Asia, and by the end of the century was the dominant power in the region, which became known as French Indochina—present-day Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Despite the efforts of Vietnamese nationalist groups, the French maintained control of the region until around the outbreak of World War I.

Ho Chi Minh had become the most important nationalist in Vietnam. In 1930 and 1931, he helped organize strikes, demonstrations, and peasant uprisings against the colonists. The French exiled him to the Soviet Union and China, but after the Japanese invasion in 1940, he returned home to organize a communist resistance movement to fight both the Japanese and the French colonial government. After the defeated Japanese withdrew in 1945, Ho proclaimed independence for Vietnam, but no major government recognized this declaration. France tried to reclaim Indochina the following year and soon had regained...

(The entire section is 3,675 words.)