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The Book of Salt (Monique Truong)

March 5, 2010

I read this book for a class I took last summer, but it was even better the second time around. Truong’s language is really beautiful, and in many ways it just feels fresh. Just as the Miss Toklas and GertrudeStein characters take joy in Binh’s use of French — the way he defines things by what they are not, and uses this second language in creative and insightful ways — so I took joy in Truong’s use of English. She tells Binh’s story in a delicate and touching manner…but stays away from oversentimentalizing it or making it trite. It’s the language of this novel that really hooked me and brought the story itself to life.

Even just the title — The Book of Salt — reflects this in the way she continues to return to the idea of salt in all its different forms. When Binh learns what GertrudeStein has called the words she wrote about him, he has questions. “Salt, I thought. GertrudeStein, what kind? Kitchen, sweat, tears, or the sea. Madame, they are not all teh same. Their stings, their smarts, their strengths, the distinctions among them are fine. Do you know, GertrudeStein, which ones I have tasted on my tongue? A story is a gift, Madame, and you are welcome” (260-1). Throughout the novel, different encounters with salt occur at key moments of the text. The last time Binh sees his oldest brother, Anh Minh and his kitchen staff are outside in the heat of a Vietnamese evening bodily whipping egg whites into meringue; they are sweating, and the salt from their bodies mixes with the whites of the eggs they beat to add to the recipe (45-6). Later on, when Binh dines with the Man on the Bridge, he encounters the delights of a rare kind of sea salt called fleur de sel: “A gradual revelation of its true self, as I was beginning to learn, is the quality that sets fleur de sel apart from the common sea salt that waits for me in most French kitchens. There is a development, a rise and fall, upon which its salinity becomes apparent, deepens, and then disappears. Think of it as a kiss in the mouth” (98). These are just two of the moments, but they’re examples of the beautiful language Truong writes with — the beautiful language she gives to this man who has so much to say, but nobody to say it to.

One of my favorite passages from the novel: “I, yes, lost the French word for ‘pineapple’ the moment I opened my mouth. 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. This has happened to me many times before. At least now I know what to do, I thought. I repeated my question, but this time I had my hands on top of my head, with only the bottom of my palms touching my hair. My fingers were spread like two erect, partially opened fans. Complete with my crown, I stood in front of my new Madame and Madame the embodiment of ‘a-pear-not-a-pear'” (35). Moments like these are peppered throughout the novel, and I enjoy them for the commentary they make about language. Here is Binh, who speaks just enough French to get by, but who finds these poetic and fresh ways to say things (partly out of necessity, but partly because of his personality). He refuses to be defeated by this foreign language, and instead forces it to do his bidding. He makes it work for him, giving his words to others in a selective and intimate gesture. He is a man who has renamed himself without telling anybody, and who renames everyone around him without telling them about it. He nicknames everybody and everything from Sweet Sunday Man to The Man on the Bridge, from his Mesdames’ dogs to the food he cooks with. While his French language skills may be limited, his ownership of the language (and of his own internal language) is not.

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