Friday, December 4, 2009

Cooking in Paris for Stein

A few times in this blog I've recommended various books of historical fiction, ones I've read during this sabbatical semester or earlier: The True History of the Kelly Gang, Ahab's Wife, Mariette in Ecstasy. (And don't miss an even better historical novel by Ron Hansen, one of the best novels I've ever read in any genre--his Hitler's Niece.) I recently finished a book quite different from any of those and perhaps from any I've read before: The Book of Salt by Monique Truong. Truong's first novel, it is a dreamy, fluid, at times almost formless construction that delves into the mind and the past of a Vietnamese man who worked for several years as the personal chef to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. I must admit that it took some time delving into the novel before it completely held me, but Truong's eloquence is irresistable and her pictures of pre-war Paris and of pre-communist Vietnam are intriguing, concrete, believable, and engaging. (Keep an eye out for the appearance of someone who almost certainly is a young Ho Chi Minh.) What you shouldn't anticipate on approaching the book is that it will act as some kind of tell all about Stein and Toklas. Indeed, I venture to guess that more pages in the book are devoted to the protagonist's life before he meets Stein and Toklas than after he does. There's a coolness and even an unexpected lack of curiosity in how he describes the two women; and yet at the same time he seems to know or have intuited some rather intimate details about how they regard and have regarded each other. But, ah hah, this brings me to my last point--the stroke of genius that underlies the book and finally makes sense of nearly every one of Truong's moves. We realize, late in the narrative, that what we are reading was not, in the fictional world of the novel, composed by the chef himself but--similar to The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas--written by Stein from the perspective of her Vietnamese employee. She apparently has, from a distant remove, regarded him as quite the curiosity over the years, enough to compose a book with him as the narrator. The title of Stein's manuscript? Why, of course: The Book of Salt. This explains so much about the book that I cannot even begin to tell in this brief post. It also means that the Book of Salt is not merely a good read, but will make for a great second and third and fourth read as you uncover more and more gems served up (if you'll excuse the pun) with brilliant and subtle acumen by this very talented writer.


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