Monique Truong's debut novel, The Book of Salt, is narrated by a Vietnamese man named Binh who serves as the personal cook for those sapphic luminaries Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. The primary setting is Paris; the time, around 1929, when things began to go seriously awry.
In an elegant if rambling style somewhat reminiscent of Stein herself, Truong relates Binh's rise from obscurity to semi-obscurity. The son of a hateful, alcoholic, but devoutly Catholic father and a long-suffering, devoted mother, Binh begins his culinary career in the Governor-General's mansion in Saigon. Later, as a lost soul in the Paris of the Lost Generation, he answers an ad placed by "Two American ladies," whom Binh addresses as GertrudeStein (a one-word appellation) and Miss Toklas. What follows is a truly mouth-watering cascade of food preparations and displays.
In its celebration of gustatory delights and their use as metaphors for human life, Truong's novel belongs in the company of such books as Joanne Harris' Chocolat. Compared to a soufflé, says Binh, "A tart is better, uncomplicated, in the wrong hands even a bit rough. Like an American boy, I would imagine."
Despite Leo Stein's tenable appraisal of his sister's prose as "nothing more than babble," the two women inhabit a world of extreme aestheticism and popularity. In contrast, Binh lives on the fringes as an asiatique, and gay to boot. Indeed, and perhaps implausibly, Binh has a brief encounter with no less than the future Ho Chi Minh. He drinks excessively and wanders around Paris so much that he memorizes its arrondissements. And when the Steins eventually return to America, they leave Binh as well as their two dogs, Pépé and Basket behind.
Born in Saigon and now a New Yorker, Truong capably evokes Binh's disparate worlds, and her depiction of the eccentric, punctilious and almost intolerably narcissistic American ladies rings true. Somewhat less convincing is her ambitious persona as a gay man: one often hears Truong, not Binh, when the writing soars into sentimentality or sensuality. And for a man of such reticence, Binh's inner life is almost incredibly elaborate.
But there is perhaps no place so romantic as colonial Indochina or antebellum Paris, and by the end of The Book of Salt one hungers desperately for both. And perhaps even more, one hungers for one of Binh's extraordinary repasts.
Kenneth Champeon, a writer living in Thailand, is a regular contributor to ThingsAsian.com.