A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain Style and Technique

Robert Olen Butler

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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....

(The entire section is 505 words.)