In a dazzling if sometimes daunting debut, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s Vietnamese cook tells his story—and theirs.
By 1934, Binh (it may or may not be his real name) has cooked for Stein and Toklas for five years. As he and his “Mesdames” travel by rail to Le Havre, where the women will depart for America, we learn his history in bits and pieces, often through meandering riffs that may challenge readers’ patience. Binh is the fourth son of an authoritarian Vietnamese Catholic (who may or may not be his biological father). His oldest brother, a sous-chef, finds work for Binh in the kitchen of the French Governor General of Vietnam, but Binh’s homosexual affair with the chef is revealed, and he’s fired. Binh escapes disgrace by going as a cook’s assistant aboard a freighter bound for Europe, then works in a number of French kitchens before finding a home with Stein and Toklas. He describes the famous couple from the intimate perspective of hired help verging on family. While he admires the woman he calls GertrudeStein (sic) as a major energy force, his deeper loyalty goes to Toklas, who shares his passion for the sensuality of preparing food—the novel is in fact largely a meditation on the senses and sensuality, and the salt of the title has different sources (table, sea, tears, sweat) that create different sensations and different resonances. Truong caresses each image and each shifting sensation, forming whole scenes around a taste, color, or touch, language being her other second theme. Binh himself writes in Vietnamese, speaks a little French and less English, but comments on the meaning of words as they play against each other in the three languages. Far less important is the plot involving his affair with a mixed-race American for whom he steals one of Stein’s notebooks.
A tour de force. Truong should take literate America by storm.