Monday, 13 July 2015

the book of salt by Monique Truong

I got, or grabbed, this book at the “Bookswapping Club” event last month. It is about a Vietnamese cook working for Gertrud Stein and Alice B. Toklas and takes place in the end of 1920s, beginning of 1930s. Seemed like a perfect book to read for the Paris in July activity. Here is what it says on the back cover:

Paris, 1934, Binh has accompanied his employers to the station for their departure to America. His own destination is unclear: will he go with his ‘Mesdames’, stay in France, or return to his native Vietnam? Binh fled his homeland in disgrace, leaving behind his malevolent charlatan of a father and his self-sacrificing mother. For five years, he has been the personal cook at the famous apartment on the rue de Fleurus. Binh is a lost soul, an exile and an alien, a man of musings, memories and possibly lies…Tastes, oceans, sweat, tears - The Book of Salt is an inspired novel about food and exile, love and betrayal. 

I did a little bit of research on the internet, since my first thought was that it was a historical fiction about a true person and his life. After reading the book I got a little bit doubtful. I found an article from The New York Times  and there it tells us that Stein and Toklas did employ several cooks, and one of them was a Vietnamese man named Trac. It is all mentioned in The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book. From this line in the book the American-Vietnamese writer Monique Truong has based her story.

Binh is the man’s name in the book. He has to, more or less, flee from his home. He gets on a boat and ends up in Marseille, from where he travels to Paris. He take the odd jobs until one day he finds an add in the paper:

Two American ladies wish
to retain a cook - 27 rue de
Fleurus. See the concierge

He applies for the job and gets it. The two ladies are Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Through the eyes of Binh we get a glimpse of their life. It is Alice Toklas that takes care of the cooking and she has a clear idea how it should be done. There are a lot of descriptions of food in the book, and you get hungry from time to time. I have even noted a small tip on how to make a crème brulée taste extraordinary!

Through backward glances Binh tells us his story; his early life in Vietnam, about his alcoholic, catholic father, his long suffering mother, his three brothers, his first work at the General Governor’s office and his acquaintance with the cook, who become his lover. It is when his father finds out that Binh is homosexual that he asks him to leave the house and never come back. He is a man with an open mind, so wherever he is, he makes interesting acquaintances. For example; ‘The Man on the Bridge’ and ‘The Sunday Man’. He gives the people he meets specific names. Mostly because he either don’t know their real name or is unable to pronounce it.  According to Wikipedia, the man on the bridge could be Ho Chi Minh, who spent some time in Paris during this time. Binh enters into a relationship with the Sunday man (so-called because they meet on Sundays when Binh has a day off). He is a mulatto iridologist (they practise alternative medicin and says they can tell your illnesses by looking in your iris). They have a special relationship, which ends in an unexpected way.

Binh works for Stein and Toklas for five years, both in the flat in Paris and in their country house in Bilignin. The life in the country house is very different from the life in Paris. Binh makes friends in the neighbourhood and gets a taste for the local wine. In 1934 Stein and Toklas travel to the States for a lecturing tour and Binh’s employment is over. The book leaves Binh as he entered; on his own, still looking for his own life.

I don’t really know what to think about this book. The story is very interesting, especially the Vietnamese part which very well describes (I think) the life of ordinary, poor people at the time. Also the various people Binh meets on his way are very well described and well characterised. The prose is very beautiful, almost like poetry, and there is where I have a problem. First of all, it is not entirely realistic that this poor cook should have all these, really philosophical ideas and thoughts, about everything in life. Secondly, the story goes back and forth, and when you are ‘back’ there are still side directions to this story. The diversions are so often and so many, so you tend to loose direction of the main story.

The food is very well described in the book. Even the simplest thing, sounds like poetry and is so beautifully described that you are tempted to try out everything. Binh has a lovely way to name food or fruits or similar, due to his bad French.

“Madame, I want to buy a pear…not a pear.”
Miss Toklas looked at me, recognition absent from her eyes. 
I, yes, lost the French word for “pineapple” the moment I opened my mouth. Departing at their will, the words of this language mock me with their impromptu absences. When I am alone, they offer themselves to me, loose change in a shallow pocket, but as soon as I reach for one I spill the others. This has happened to me many times before. At least I now know what to do, I thought. I repeated my question, but this time I had my hands on top of my head, with only the bottom of my palms touching my hair. My fingers were spread like two erect, partially opened fans. Complete with my crown, I stood in front of my new Madame and Madame the embodiment of “a-pear-not-a-pear.” I remember seeing GertrudeStein smile. Already, my Madame was amusing herself with my French. She was wrapping my words around her tongue, saving them for a later, more careful study of their mutations.”

This is also an example on how a simple thing like trying to make yourself understood, extends into ‘poetic’ words and sentences, but at the same time takes the text to a higher level. It would be fine if it was here and there, but the whole book is like this, and I found it quite tiresome to read. Although, having said that, I never thought of not finishing the book. It is quite fascinating, a story told in a different way. It shows Paris from a another angle; from the view of a Vietnamese foreigner, homosexual at a time when this was very difficult, without work, without prospects, but he still have to survive somehow. He has one skill on which he used to bet to earn some money when times were hard. Having walked all around Paris, he knew all the streets. Anyone could say a street name and he could say in which area it was.


  1. Once long ago I was eating in a Vietnamse restaurant in Florida. I remarked to my dinner companion that the Vietnamese had been partially taught to cook by the French. The proprietor was behind me and gave me a very annoyed look. This book sounds fascinating.

    1. I can imagine. But today we can also enjoy Vietnamese restaurants here in Europe. I love all Asian food!

  2. That household of G Steins would've been a fascinating place to hang out. I recall scenes from Midnight in Paris about Gertrudes house, I can imagine a Vietnamese cook in the background there... Lisbeth I appreciate your honesty on your feelings for the book.

    1. Gertrude Stein must have been av character out of the extra ordinary. To be part of this household must have been interesting. Also the variety of people passing by. Always interesting to read about such people.

  3. Aw, sorry you didn't care for this one. Thank you for the review.

    1. Well, I did like the story, which I thought was fascinating, both his Vietnamese story and the Paris one. It was just that I found it difficult to read with the story going in all kinds of directions at the same time. Although the wonderful description of food could fit into a culinary cook book!

  4. I know I'd love the food descriptions and I think the meshing of cultures would make an interesting read. Thanks for sharing Lisbeth.