October 26, 2011
Monique Truong. The Book of Salt.
Monique Truong’s second novel, Bitter in the Mouth, came out last month, so (the way things are done here) it’s the time to celebrate her first.
I’ve taught The Book of Salt a couple of times now, always paired with Gertrude Stein. What could be better? A Vietnamese cook in the Stein/Toklas household, giving us a bottom-up history of 27 Rue de Fleurus, of the people and dogs surrounding “My Mesdames,” and the food daily served up and consumed. Truong said that she got her inspiration from The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, which mentions two “Indochinese cooks.” In The Book of Salt, there is just one, Binh, and he is no ordinary cook, but someone with memories of Saigon, of the staff as well as the chief occupants in the French Governor-General’s mansion. He is an artist who works with shapes and colors as well as taste, who puts a secret ingredient into his dishes (finally discovered by Alice), and who reports that Alice likes her food hot while Gertrude likes hers tepid. He loves cooking with quinces. He says that they “are useless, GertrudeStein, until they are simmered, coddled for hours above a low, steady flame. Add honey and water and watch their dry, bone-colored flesh soak up the heat, coating itself in an opulent orange, not of the sunrises that you never see but of the insides of tree-ripened papayas, a color you can taste.”
A color you can taste. In The Critique of Judgment, Kant speaks of the faculty of taste as the sensus communis, a subjective necessity that binds us to the subjective necessities of other people, subjective necessities outside our own skin. It’s a sensory faculty at once intimate and relational, taking in the world and taking in other people as we imagine them doing the same. Kant wasn’t thinking of quinces. He’s about as dry as can be. Truong turns him (and Stein) into the fruit that melts in our mouths.