- The Washington Times - Monday, May 12, 2003

The painter Edouard Vuillard wrote that “the music of painting” is the “arrangement of colors, of lights, of shadows …” The same arrangement describes the music of the written word in Monique Truong’s beautiful, lyric first novel, The Book of Salt (Houghton Mifflin, $24, 272 pages). As Miss Truong’s central character, a Vietnamese cook living in Paris and speaking limited French, notes, “Language is a house with a host of doors, and I am too often uninvited and without the keys.”

Miss Truong came to the United States from Vietnam as a little girl, first to Boiling Springs, N.C., and then on to Yale and Columbia Law School. In “The Book of Salt,” she has painted a word portrait of remembered sights and sounds enhanced by knowledge and experience.

The premise of the story is an advertisement — a real one — for a cook placed in a Parisian newspaper by “two American ladies.” The ladies were Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. At the opening of the story, Binh has been working for his mesdames for five years. Gradually, he unfolds his story from his childhood at his young mother’s side under the cruel hand of his father, The Old Man, to his Parisian life at 27 rue de Fleurus where the two ladies lived, loved and held court.

The sorrowful details of Binh’s life begin as a kitchen assistant in the French colonial governor general’s house in Saigon, where his brother, the sous chef, taught him “that to be a good cook, I had to first envision the possibilities. I had to close my eyes and see and taste what was not there. I had to dream and discern it all on my tongue.”

Dismissed in disgrace for a dalliance with the governor-general’s handsome, young French chef and thrown out by the Old Man, Binh flees to sea and finally to Paris where his time is spent in short-lived engagements, drinking too much in sordid cafes and searching for love. His life and loves take a turn for the better when he answers the ladies’ ad.

Throughout the book, Binh describes his recipes (“I would first cut pineapple into paper-thin rounds and saute them with shallots and slices of beef; the sugar in the pineapple would caramelize during cooking, imparting a faint smokiness that is addictive;” “Inside the curl of a leaf of lettuce is a single poached oyster. Underneath this dollop of ocean fog is a soft pallet of potatoes. A shaving of black truffle covers all.” But it is salt that is the underlying ingredient. He muses that “[t]he true taste of salt — the whole of the sea on the tip of the tongue, sorrow’s sting, labor’s smack — has been lost, … to centuries of culinary imprudence.”

It is not only in the description of what he cooks that Binh’s graceful reflections delight the reader. “Quinces are ripe … when they are the yellow of canary wings in midflight.” All is told with an extraordinarily delicate touch. Incidents are filled with literary magic that embroiders each scene with a gentle scrim hiding the grim gritty existence beneath the surface.

The reader is moved by Binh’s loneliness, his ostracism from his native land and the forced servility of his role as an Asian in 1920s and ‘30s Paris. Miss Truong distills the longings of the outcast, carnal pleasures, colonial arrogance and imagined intimacies of the “Steins’” household with gentle humor and extraordinary grace. “The Book of Salt” is a tasty literary feast.

Fleur de Leigh is a 15-year-old, shipped off by her self-centered Hollywood parents to a bizarre boarding school in Diane Leslie’s delightful Fleur de Leigh in Exile (Simon and Schuster, $23, 301 pages). In deliciously witty, self-deprecating commentary, Fleur recounts the year she spends at Rancho Cambridge West in the Arizona desert. RCW is home to emotionally abandoned children and to young people with various physical ailments requiring dry desert air. It’s a gruesome place — Fleur is horrified by the ugliness of the school, the scum-infested swimming pool, the bizarre teachers — but strong bonds are created there.

Fleur’s dearest friend from Los Angeles, Daisy — now calling herself Twyla — arrives, having just discovered that the man she thought was her father is, in fact, not. Twyla is beautiful, snooty and uses blatant anti-Semitism to win an election as student body president.

Despite the light, amusing tone of the book, there is a serious and often moving undercurrent to the narrative. The genuine loneliness that embraces Fleur, her longing for a familiar home, even though she is ignored there, the girls’ hiding and caring for a Mexican migrant baby sick with tuberculosis, the description of the migrant workers’ camp, all described with the same light, straightforward tone as the school pranks, effectively move the reader.

“Fleur de Leigh in Exile” has perfect pitch: a novel filled with funny escapades and endearing characters, amusingly and charmingly portrayed by a delightful protagonist, yet rooted in the wrenching social and personal issues that confront real people.

Lee J. Nelson’s The Boy in the Box (Bridge Works Publishing Co., $23.95, 226 pages) begins as a straightforward story as Smith arrives in Queens, New York, from the West Coast. It is a hot, humid August day; Smith is staying in his sister’s apartment for two weeks while she is in Boston and he is looking for a job as an industrial designer.

Quickly the novel moves into the surreal as the building’s janitor “[f]rom behind a pair of thick glasses and beneath a corona of black, unruly hair” surreptitiously tells Smith about a boy being held captive in a box.

Smith, young, nave, trusting, seeks help from an assortment of people — a friendly neighbor, an astrology maven waitress, a homeless man in Chinatown, a drug dealer and the police themselves in hunting for what may or may not be a little boy in trouble. The reader empathizes with Smith for the apparent heartlessness, fear and unfriendliness of New Yorkers, but slowly begins to doubt the rationality of Smith in his increasingly hysterical behavior that culminates in a bizarre job interview.

Mr. Nelson, who lives in New York City, has created a wonderfully realistic world. His minutely detailed descriptions of the places, people and encounters as the newcomer begins his stay in New York make the growing confusion in Smith’s thoughts and dreams all the more ominous. Smith’s search takes him downtown to the Twin Towers (the novel takes place in 1999) where “[a]n escalator carried him up to an outdoor plaza, back out into the sweltering heat, a discomfort he hardly noticed, for the twin colossal towers exploded into view, rocketing out of each other’s shadow: flowing steel columns forking tridentally into tributaries that streamed farther up until they dazzled in the sun.”

The allusion to Franz Kafka is evident, but Mr. Nelson has a theme and style all his own as the reader is drawn ever tighter into the concentric circles moving not inward, but outward into the unknown.

Michael Kumpfmueller’s The Adventures of a Bed Salesman (Picador, $25, 432 pages) begins with a bang, as Heinrich Hampel crosses the border between East and West Germany in 1962, a not uncommon occurrence, except that Heinrich is going East, not West. The reader expects a lighthearted satirical romp, but that’s not really the thrust of this novel, ably translated from the German by Anthea Bell.

A user of women, whether just for fun or for a purpose and opportunities to make money, Heinrich is not a bad fellow, but weak and not very sympathetic; his flight to the East is to escape a mound of debt. Once in the East, his pattern of behavior remains unchanged: anything to seduce a woman and to make money, including spying on his friends and colleagues.

His wife Rosa joins him; he does a stint in prison when he is caught selling black market goods; Rosa divorces him after more than 20 years of marriage and returns to the West. Heinrich has a stroke at age 57 and life ends slowly for him.

The novel jumps around from one period in Heinrich’s life to another and at times is difficult to follow. As a study of a man without principle, a philanderer, always a charmer, Mr. Kumpfmueller’s first novel is humorous and provocative and offers a somewhat off-beat portrait of life in East Germany.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.


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