In a servant’s so-called life

Special to The Times

The Book of Salt,

Monique Truong

Houghton Mifflin: 262 pp., $24



The young narrator of Monique Truong’s first novel, “The Book of Salt,” is the kind known as unreliable. Binh tells his story in elliptical, elusive flashbacks, revealing himself to be both endearingly naive and savvy enough to cover his tracks when necessary.

Binh works as the live-in cook for two American expatriates in Paris, but daily life at 27 rue de Fleurus is hardly ordinary, considering that his employers are Gertrude Stein and her companion, Alice B. Toklas -- who in fact did hire a Vietnamese live-in cook by placing an ad in a Paris newspaper. The real-life parallels end there; Truong has imagined an entire life history (and name) for that cook and gives him center stage. Although Stein and Toklas are colorful figures in the novel and seem authentically drawn, this is Binh’s story -- of being an exile, kicked out of his Saigon home by a tyrannical father; of being a servant, privy to household secrets; and of struggling, as a gay man, to find fulfillment beyond the brief affairs he has experienced. Binh is a lonely and tragic figure who endures crises in his personal life but finds solace in his cooking.

It is only after having worked for the “Mesdames,” as Binh calls them, for five years that he understands Stein’s vocation. (Binh calls her GertrudeStein, one word.) Although he admits having seen her writing every day for years, “I assumed it was all the same: letters, lists, invitations extended and withdrawn, thank-you’s and no-thank-you’s.” He is too preoccupied with sorting through the sad, messy details of his own history to fully appreciate how enviable his position is, knowing the intimacies of these famous, eccentric women.

Though appreciated by Stein and Toklas, he is also constantly made aware of his place in the household hierarchy -- which sadly seems to fall below that of the women’s two dogs: Basket the poodle and Pepe the Chihuahua, both of whom Binh cites as examples of “how my Mesdames’ affections were occasionally misplaced.” He feels left out in a number of ways, including linguistically; although he has a working knowledge of French, he explains that “the vocabulary of servitude is not built on my knowledge of foreign words but rather my ability to swallow them.”

Binh does have some sense of the small ways servants achieve power, such as by holding onto their masters’ secrets, mundane as they are. “I know when my Madame and Madame wake up in the morning,” Binh says. “I know the sounds that come from behind their bedroom door when they think that I am not around. I know the cigars that they smoke. I know the postcards they collect and the women who recline naked on them. I know the old-woman gases that escape from them, and the foods that aggravate them. Brussels sprouts, if you must know.”

As Binh’s disorienting story wavers from present to past, his voice shifts from wry observer to that of a lost and desperate soul. His father’s angry, hateful presence haunts him, despite their estrangement, as does Binh’s sense of failure. Truong conveys well her narrator’s efforts to find his place in a family that refuses him. In every situation Binh recalls, he describes trying to assert his identity and eventually being rejected for it. By the time he works for his Mesdames, he has developed a drinking problem, a flair for sexual melodrama and a self-destructive habit of cutting himself with knives.

As in Tracy Chevalier’s novel “Girl With a Pearl Earring,” which imagined a young servant girl’s complex relationship with a real-life historical figure (Vermeer), “The Book of Salt” offers a servant’s perspective on an uneasy relationship with artists.

Yet Truong’s novel is infinitely more expansive and multilayered. Binh is deeply troubled (clearly more so as the novel goes on), yet he is oddly noble, determined to find a life of dignity for himself. That the account of his life story ultimately proves unreliable makes Binh no less memorable or compelling a figure. And it makes Truong’s debut seem more impressive and ambitious than most contemporary first works of fiction, which often read like thinly fictionalized memoirs. This novel, however, displays its author’s supple imagination on every page.