Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Melancholic Ghosts in Monique Truong's the Book of Salt

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Melancholic Ghosts in Monique Truong's the Book of Salt

Article excerpt

In The Melancholy of Race Anne Anlin Cheng observes that melancholia "alludes not to loss per se but to the entangled relationship with loss" (2001, 8). It is precisely these entanglements with which this essay is concerned. Monique Truong's 2003 bestseller, The Book of Salt, offers a telling case study in loss and melancholia in the diaspora, as the haunted protagonist Binh copes with his expulsion from family and country. The Book of Salt is narrated by Binh, a gay exile Irving in Paris and working as a live-in chef for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in the 1930s at their famed residence at 27 rue de Fleurus. The narrative continually shifts in time and place, shuttling between Saigon, Paris, and the sea, as Binh slowly recounts his life story, fragment by fragment. As his story unwinds, we learn that Binh was disowned by his abusive, alcoholic father - to whom Binh refers only as "Old Man" - when he learns that Binh has had an affair with the Frenchman Blériot, the chef de cuisine at the governor- general s house in Saigon where Binh works as a low-level cook. With nowhere else to go, Binh escapes to the "wide open sea" where he spends the next three years working as a galley cook before finally settling in Paris and finding his "Mesdames" Stein and Toklas. Binh works for the couple for nearly five years, from 1929 until their return to the United States in 1934, during which time he meets and begins an affair with Marcus Lattimore, a mixedrace African American passing as white, who attends Stein's Saturday salons. The Book of Salt is a deeply haunted text, from the Old Man's voice that echoes in Binh's head as a constant reproach, to the ghostly figure of "the man on the bridge" (a fictionalized Ho Chi Minh) whom Binh longs to meet again, to Binh's own invisibility as he wanders the streets of Paris.

Banished from his family and country for his homosexuality, Binh is profoundly melancholic, holding on to the life he lost through memory and repetition. The elliptical narration, continually returning to Binh's life in Vietnam, demonstrates how fully his present is saturated by the past. Binh psychically preserves the moment of his expulsion from home by literally internalizing the voice of his disapproving father. Indeed, when Binh recounts the day his father disowned him, he repeats the phrase "I stand there still" (Truong 2004, 164). This refers, at once, to the momentary paralysis Binh experiences as his father berates and disowns him ("still" as in "motionless") and to Binh's inability to move on emotionally from this traumatic scene of rejection ("still" as in "continued until now") (OED). Just as he is haunted by the violence and hatred of his father, Binh similarly relives the love and nurturing he received from his mother. He compulsively and longingly cuts the tips of his fingers while he cooks, transporting himself back to an early childhood memory in which his mother cradled him close to her body as she tended to his bloody fingers, soothing him with song, after he cut himself for the first time while chopping scallions with her. Binh's every moment in Paris is achingly bound up with his past. Haunted by a home and family to which he cannot return, Binh wills his own psychic return through these compulsive repetitions of the past.

Moreover, the novel itself is haunted - a literary project produced through Truong's conjuring of the dead. Her central figure, Binh, is a composite character based on two "Indo-Chinese" chefs, Trac and Nguyen, who worked for Stein and Toklas in Paris. In The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, Toklas describes their "insecure, unstable, unreliable, but thoroughly enjoyable experiences with the Indo-Chinese" (1954, 186). Although Trac and Nguyen are the only two Vietnamese chefs Toklas names, she and Stein employed a "succession" of them while in Paris (187). While Toklas expresses a certain condescending affection for Trac and Nguyen - "Gertrude Stein and I thought Nguyen delightfully Chinese" (188) - she describes the Indo-Chinese men she and Stein employed as alternately liars, gamblers, drunks, womanizers, and drug addicts (187). …

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