Monique Truong puts a lot of heat in The Book of Salt. The heat of two bodies rubbing in a hammock at sea. A Vietnamese summer that can curdle egg whites. Truong tells us that a child born in Saigon does not taste his mother’s milk first but rather the salt on her nipple. This is the world evoked by her narrator Binh, cook to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in Paris.

I first heard about The Book of Salt from Yiyun Li, who held it up as an excellent example of historical fiction told from the perspective of a seemingly innocuous bystander. Later, when compiling a list of books to read for my visit to Vietnam, I ran into this novel again as a must-read from the Vietnamese diaspora. This confused me. Was The Book of Salt a clever look at Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas or a novel of Vietnam?

The Book of Salt fits neither of these reductive descriptions. Just as Binh, the main character, refuses to remain inside any single box. He’s the son of an abusive father, the garde-manger at the Governor-General’s residence in Saigon, a ship’s cook, a homosexual, an Indochinese, an exile. The Book of Salt is, above all, a novel of loneliness.

Even with my eyes closed, I know. Emptiness lowers the temperature of any room.

Monique Truong, The Book of Salt (Houghton Mifflin 2003)

In the Kitchen

Truong was born in Saigon. She went to the US in 1975 as a refugee. She is a novelist, an essayist and a librettist. Her touchstones are food and memory. From September 2011 to July 2012, Truong wrote a food column for The New York Times. For Truong, food is more than a mere taste of home. Only a cook could have written The Book of Salt.

Binh, the cook, knows all about the importance of food and its consumption. When The Book of Salt opens in 1934, Binh has already cooked for 5 years for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Madame Toklas runs the household and fixes the menus. She has no patience with guests who ooh and aah at the food before tasting it.

The tongue is an organ of truth. It cannot pretend to find flavors where there are none. Nor can it ignore the slip-slime of undercooked chicken, the aggressive tang of soured milk, burnt sugar’s pervasive iron fumes.

Binh’s repertoire would do Escoffier proud. Early on in his relationship with Madame and Madame, he proposes a dinner menu. Does the kitchen budget allow for the purchase of two pineapples? The first is intended for the main course: pineapple sautéed with beef and shallots until the sugar caramelizes the meat. Then there is dessert.

I would cut the second pineapple into bite-sized pieces, soak them in kirsch, make them into a drunken bed for spoonfuls of tangerine sorbet; […] I would pipe unsweetened cream around the edges, a ring of ivory rosettes. And because I am vain and want nothing more than to hear the eruption of praises that I can provoke, I wanted to tell her that I would scatter on top the petals of candied violets, their sugar crystal sparkling.

Between Languages

Binh would say this and much more but his French fails him. Normally, this presents no problem. Life for a servant is the same whether he toils in the residence of the Governor-General of Indochina or 27, rue de Fleurus.

The vocabulary of servitude is not built upon my knowledge of foreign words but rather on my ability to swallow them.

There are few Vietnamese in Paris. Binh has no friends and no contact with his family back home. He is beginning to lose his native tongue and his adopted language is nothing less than traitorous.

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.

If Binh’s French is bad, his Mesdames are even worse. Neither of them can pronounce his name properly so they name him, mockingly, Thin Bin. He returns the favor by naming his mistress GertrudeStein, as if she cannot be properly designated with merely one name or the other.

The American Lattimore calls Binh by the pet name, Bee. Binh calls Lattimore his Sweet Sunday Man. Binh doesn’t mind when Lattimore murmurs to him in English, a language Binh does not understand.

Words, Sweet Sunday Man, do not have twins in every language. Sometimes they have only distant cousins, and sometimes they pretend that they are not even related.

Far from Home

Celebrities appear from time to time in The Book of Salt. GertrudeStein and Alice B. Toklas, the last Emperor of Vietnam and Prince Norodom of Cambodia. Truong mines the fraught relationship between the French colonials and their Indochinese. Her description of the emperor Bao Dai’s decadence fits perfectly with the way the Vietnamese commemorate their last emperor.

The Emperor of Vietnam is first only when women or gambling are involved. Only nineteen, and yet the Emperor keeps a notebook with the names of all the women whom he has bedded. He likes to name his racing horses after them.

But not even GertrudeStein can compete with the story of Binh’s journey. The Book of Salt is, after all, a cook’s tale. And no loss suffered by any of its characters compares with Binh’s exile from home.

Truong loops her narrative back and forth — from the colonial kitchen in Saigon, a cook’s mess on a freighter to 27 rue de Fleurus — the way water eddies around the stones of a river bed. It’s late in the novel before we learn why Binh cannot go home. That moment derives its pathos from the parting between mother and son.

My mother walked over to me. She sat down and wrapped herself around me, pressing my stooped back into hers. The gesture stopped time. […] I will always be protected, safe inside of you, is what you want me to remember.

There are many kinds of salt in The Book of Salt. Of course, it will sting but where does it come from? Kitchen, sweat, tears or the sea: these are the four cardinal points of Binh’s journey, the four sources of the heat in his life, a prayer to the ancestors he can only worship from afar.

28 September 2019 | Karen Kao