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9780618446889

The Book of Salt: A Novel

Truong, Monique Author

9780618446889: The Book of Salt: A Novel

The Book of Salt serves up a wholly original take on Paris in the 1930s through the eyes of Binh, the Vietnamese cook employed by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Viewing his famous mesdames and their entourage from the kitchen of their rue de Fleurus home, Binh observes their domestic entanglements while seeking his own place in the world. In a mesmerizing tale of yearning and betrayal, Monique Truong explores Paris from the salons of its artists to the dark nightlife of its outsiders and exiles. She takes us back to Binh's youthful servitude in Saigon under colonial rule, to his life as a galley hand at sea, to his brief, fateful encounters in Paris with Paul Robeson and the young Ho Chi Minh.

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About the Author:

Monique Truong was born in Saigon in 1968 and moved to the United States at age six. She graduated from Yale University and the Columbia University School of Law, going on to specialize in intellectual property. Truong coedited the anthology Watermark: Vietnamese American Poetry and Prose. Her first novel,The Book of Salt, a national bestseller, has been awarded the 2003 Bard Fiction Prize, the Stonewall Book Award-Barbara Gittings Literature Award, and the Young Lions Fiction Award, among other honors. Granting Truong an Award of Excellence, the Vietnamese American Studies Center at San Francisco State University called her "a pioneer in the field, as an academic, an advocate, and an artist." Truong now lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

Of that day I have two photographs and, of course, my memories.
We had arrived at the Gare du Nord with over three hours to spare. There were, after all, a tremendous number of traveling cases and trunks. It took us two taxi rides from the apartment to the train station before all the pieces could be accounted for. A small group of photographers, who had gathered for the occasion, volunteered to watch over the first load while we returned to the rue de Fleurus for more. My Mesdames accepted their offer without hesitation. They had an almost childlike trust in photographers. Photographers, my Mesdames believed, transformed an occasion into an event. Their presence signaled that importance and fame had arrived, holding each other’s hands. Their flashing cameras, like the brilliant smiles of long-lost friends, had quickly warmed my Mesdames’ collective heart. More like friends too new to trust, I had thought. I had been with my Mesdames for half a decade by then. The photographers had not been there from the very beginning. But once the preparation for the journey began, they swarmed to the entrance of 27 rue de Fleurus like honeybees. I could easily see why my Mesdames cultivated them. Every visit by a photographer would be inevitably followed by a letter enclosing a newspaper or magazine clipping with my Mesdames’ names circled in a halo of red ink. The clippings, each carefully pressed with a heated iron, especially if a crease had thoughtlessly fallen on my Mesdames’ faces, went immediately into an album with a green leather cover. “Green is the color of envy,” my Mesdames told me. At this, knowing looks shot back and forth between them, conveying what can only be described as glee. My Mesdames communicated with each other in cryptic ways, but after all my years in their company I was privy to their keys. “Green” meant that they had waited desperately for this day, had tired of seeing it arriving on the doorsteps of friends and mere acquaintances; that the album had been there from the very beginning, impatient but biding its time; that they were now thrilled to fill it with family photographs of the most public kind. “Green” meant no longer their own but other people’s envy.
I know that it may be difficult to believe, but it took the arrival of the photographers for me to understand that my Mesdames were not, well, really mine; that they belonged to a country larger than any that I had ever been to; that its people had a right to embrace and to reclaim them as one of their own. Of course, 27 rue de Fleurus had always been filled with visitors, but that was different. My Mesdames enjoyed receiving guests, but they also enjoyed seeing them go. Many had arrived hoping for a permanent place around my Mesdames’ tea table, but I always knew that after the third pot they would have to leave. My Mesdames had to pay me to stay around. A delicious bit of irony, I had always thought. The photographers, though, marked the beginning of something new.
This latest crop of admirers was extremely demanding and altogether inconsolable. They, I was stunned to see, were not satisfied with knocking at the door to 27 rue de Fleurus, politely seeking entrance to sip a cup of tea. No, the photographers wanted my Mesdames to go away with them, to leave the rue de Fleurus behind, to lock it up with a key. At the Gare du Nord that day, all I could think about were the flashes of the cameras, how they had never stopped frightening me. They were lights that feigned to illuminate but really intended to blind. Lightning before a driving storm, I had thought. But I suppose that was the sailor’s apprehension in me talking. It had been eleven years since I had made a true ocean crossing. For my Mesdames, it had been over thirty. The ocean for them was only a memory, a calming blue expanse between here and there. For me it was alive and belligerent, a reminder of how distance cannot be measured by the vastness of the open seas, that that was just the beginning.
When my Mesdames first began preparing for the journey, they had wanted to bring Basket and Pépé along with them. The SS Champlain gladly accommodated dogs and assorted pets, just as long as they were accompanied by a first-class owner. The problem, however, was America. No hotels or at least none on their itinerary would accept traveling companions of the four-legged kind. The discussion had been briefly tearful but above all brief. My Mesdames had in recent years become practical. Even the thought of their beloved poodle and Chihuahua laanguishing in Paris, whimpering, or, in the case of the Chihuahua, yapping, for many months if not years to come, even this could not postpone the journey home. There was certainly no love lost between me and those dogs, the poodle Basket especialllllly. My Mesdames bought him in Paris at a dog show in the spring of 1929. Later that same year, I too joined the rue de Fleurus household. I have always suspected that it was the closeness of our arrivals that made this animal behave so badly toward me.
Jealousy is instinctual, after all. Every morning, my Mesdames insisted on washing Basket in a solution of sulfur water. A cleaner dog could not have existed anywhere else. Visitors to the rue de Fleurus often stopped in midsentence to admire Basket’s fur and its raw-veal shade of pink. At first, I thought it was the sulfur water that had altered the color of His Highness’s curly white coat. But then I realized that he was simply losing his hair, that his sausage-casing skin had started to shine through, an embarrassing peep show no doubt produced by his morning baths. My Mesdames soon began “dressing” Basket in little capelike outfits whenever guests were around.
I could wash and dress myself, thank you. Though, like Basket, I too had a number of admirers. Well, maybe only one or two. Pépé the Chihuahua, on the other hand, was small and loathsome. He was hardly a dog, just all eyes and a wet little nose. Pépé should have had no admirers, but he, like Basket, was a fine example of how my Mesdames’ affections were occasionally misplaced. Of course, my Mesdames asked me to accompany them. Imagine them extending an invitation to Basket and Pépé and not me. Never. We, remember, had been together for over half a decade by then. I had traveled with them everywhere, though in truth that only meant from Paris to their summer house in Bilignin. My Mesdames were both in their fifties by the time I found them. They had lost their wanderlust by then. A journey for them had come to mean an uneventful shuttle from one site of comfort to another, an automobile ride through the muted colors of the French countryside.
Ocean travel changed everything. My Mesdames began preparing for it months in advance. They placed orders for new dresses, gloves, and shoes. Nothing was extravagant, but everything was luxurious: waistcoats embroidered with flowers and several kinds of birds, traveling outfits in handsome tweeds with brown velvet trims and buttons, shoes identical except for the heels and the size. The larger pair made only a slight effort at a lift. They were schoolgirlish in their elevation but mannish in their proportion. The smaller pair aspired to greater but hardly dizzying heights. Both my Mesdames, remember, were very concerned about comfort.
“We’ll take a train from Paris to Le Havre, where the SS Champlain will be docked. From there, the Atlantic will be our host for six to seven days, and then New York City will float into view. From New York, we’ll head north to Massachusetts, then south to Maryland and Virginia, then west to Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Texas, California, all the way to the shores of the Pacific and then, maybe, back again.” As my Mesdames mapped the proposed journey, the name of each city—New York, Boston, Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco—was a sharp note of excitement rising from their otherwise atonal flats. Their voices especially quivered at the mention of the airplanes. They wanted to see their America from a true twentieth-century point of view, they told the photographers. Imagine, they said to each other, a flight of fancy was no longer just a figure of speech. They wondered about the cost of acquiring one for their very own, a secondhand plane of course. My Mesdames were still practical, after all.
I was somewhat superstitious. I thought that fate must have also been listening in on this reverie about travel and flight. How could I not when the letter arrived at the rue de Fleurus later on that same day? It was quite an event. My Mesdames handed me the envelope on a small silver tray. They said that they had been startled to realize that they had never seen my full name in writing before. What probably startled them more was the realization that during my years in their employment I had never received a piece of correspondence until this one.
I did not have to look at the envelope to know. It was from my oldest brother.
No one else back there would have known where to find me, that 27 rue de Fleurus was my home. I sniffed the envelope before opening it. It smelled of a faraway city, pungent with anticipation for rain. If my Mesdames had not been in the room, I would have tasted it with my tongue. I was certain to find the familiar sting of salt, but what I needed to know was what kind: kitchen, sweat, tears or the sea. I wanted this paper-shrouded thing to divulge itself to me, to tell me even before the words emerged why it had taken my brother almost five years to respond to my first and only letter home.
I had written to him at the end of 1929. I was drunk, sitting alone in a crowded café. That December was a terrible month to be in Paris. All my favorite establishments were either overly crowded or pathetically empty. People either sipped fine vintages in celebration or g...

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