- Melancholic Ghosts in Monique Truong's The Book of Salt
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 Bình copes with his expulsion from family and country. The Book of Salt is narrated by Bình, a gay exile living in Paris and working as a live-in chef for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in the 1930's 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 Bình slowly recounts his life story, fragment by fragment. As his story unwinds, we learn that Bình was disowned by his abusive, alcoholic father—to whom Bình refers only as "Old Man"—when he learns that Bình has had an affair with the Frenchman Blériot, the chef de cuisine at the governor-general's house in Saigon where Bình works as a low-level cook. With nowhere else to go, Bình 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. Bình 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 mixed-race 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 Bình's head as a constant reproach, to the ghostly figure of "the man on the bridge" (a fictionalized Ho Chi Minh) whom Bình longs to meet again, to Bình's own invisibility as he wanders the streets of Paris. [End Page 167]
Banished from his family and country for his homosexuality, Bình is profoundly melancholic, holding on to the life he lost through memory and repetition. The elliptical narration, continually returning to Bình's life in Vietnam, demonstrates how fully his present is saturated by the past. Bình psychically preserves the moment of his expulsion from home by literally internalizing the voice of his disapproving father. Indeed, when Bình 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 Bình experiences as his father berates and disowns him ("still" as in "motionless") and to Bình'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, Bình 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. Bình's every moment in Paris is achingly bound up with his past. Haunted by a home and family to which he cannot return, Bình 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, Bình, 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...