The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book , perhaps best known for its Hashish fudge recipe, includes the lines “[He] came to us through an advertisement that I had in desperation put in the newspaper. It began captivatingly for those days: ‘Two American ladies wish to hire…’” The Book of Salt is the fictional account of the man who answered that advertisement. Binh is the live-in cook at 27 rue de Fleurs—the 1930s Parisian home of Alice B. Toklas and the noted intellectual Gertrude Stein.
Binh is Vietnamese, gay, not fluent in French, not upper-class, not rich, not well-educated; he is the colonized in the land of the colonizer–an outsider in a way that Stein and Toklas, for all their unconventionality, can never quite understand. In Paris, Binh’s identity is reduced to his skin; he is “an Indochinese labourer, generalized and indiscriminate, easily spotted and readily identifiable all the same.” The French do not care if he is from Vietnam or Cambodia or Laos, for all these countries belong to France, to “the same Monsieur and Madame”. Binh longs to be back in Saigon, where he was, “above all, just a man”, where he would not be perpetually Othered.
The relationship between colonizer and colonized is perhaps ultimately a story of betrayal. The mother country’s claims of its moral and intellectual superiority justify its right to rule—a justification which proves hollow in the face of its treatment of the colonized. Binh, to me, is emblematic of the relationship between France and Vietnam; the betrayal at the national level is mirrored in the life story of this one Vietnamese man. In Saigon, Binh is abandoned by his French lover, following which he leaves for France to find employment as a cook. France, however, never lets him forget that he is a servant. His employers often fire him when they tire of his “exoticism”; Binh of course has little recourse to justice in such situations. And Stein and Toklas, for all their enlightened ways, are often cruel to him, showing more concern for their beloved dogs’ well-being than Binh’s, calling him their “Little Indo-Chinese”, and much more.
Yet Binh is not without agency. The intimate act of cooking and serving food gives him a vantage point in the domestic space of the Stein-Toklas household–an access to the couple that their admirers envy. Food is one of the most overused metaphors in immigrant literature, with the pungent ethnic dish inevitably contrasted against decorous white bread sandwiches, but Binh’s position as cook is essential to the novel rather than a convenient peg for hanging up colourful ethnic differences. But that agency too carries seeds of betrayal within itself; there is no refuge for Binh, at least not in France.
Truong selectively reveals information to construct her complex, whorled tale, delivering surprise after surprise to the reader in the process. At no point, however, did I feel deliberately manipulated, even though she yanks the rug from under my feet every few pages. The intensity of the protagonist’s voice allows Truong to pull off this authorial chicanery; Binh is so raw and real that we immerse ourselves unquestioningly into his (self-admittedly) unreliable narrative. To apply that overused but admittedly convenient food metaphor, The Book of Salt is a millefeuille of a novel, so intricately layered that it is nothing less than a feat of engineering.
Truong has stated in an interview that while reading Toklas’s book, she felt “…in the Paris of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, these “Indo-Chinese” cooks were just a minor footnote. There could be a personal epic embedded inside that footnote, I thought. The Book of Salt is that story…” It has always seemed to me that the Binhs of our world constitute an essential but ignored part of empire-building; they lurk in margins and in footnotes, waiting to undermine the master narrative, waiting for someone to give them a hearing. Truong’s passionate, beautiful novel makes Binh’s story worth the long wait.
I read this book for the OneShot Southeast Asia challenge, which urges readers to step out of their reading comfort zones. Well, my comfort zone is South Asian fiction, which is of course miles away from Southeast Asian writing. Thanks to Lisa for the book recommendation, and to Colleen for setting up this challenge.