In discussing the different kinds of love which the Vietnamese language distinguishes between, Kim Thúy’s Ru lists thích, which means “to love by taste”.
(One may also love without being in love (thuong), love passionately (yêu), love ecstatically (mê), love blindly (mù quáng), or love gratefully (tình nghīa) and it’s impossible “quite simply to love, to love without one’s head”.)
The concept of thích will be particularly relevant to readers who come to Mãn on the heels of Ru, for the author’s new novel is preoccupied with the relationship between love and food.
And, yes, language. For it is a fine line between creating an identity and creating a meal, and words are essential ingredients in both instances.
Mãn’s name means ‘perfect fulfillment’ and just as there are many kinds of love there are many ways in which one can be fulfilled (and, conversely, in which one can yearn for what is missing).
In one sense, she is gifted with an ability to fulfill the needs and desires of others in a fundamentally powerful way.
She does this within the context of a serviceable but passionless marriage, but her loneliness might bring readers to tears as readily as her cooking overwhelms this visitor.
“One of the men came from Rạch Giá, a coastal town where a meal-in-a-bowl – a poached fish with vermicelli, embellished with shrimp eggs and caramelized pork – had been invented. Tears ran down his cheeks when I sprinkled his bowl with a small spoonful of pickled garlic. Eating that soup, he murmured that he had tasted his land, the land where he’d grown up, where he was loved.”
In many ways Mãn, too, remains a visitor, caught between worlds. She is relatively new to Montreal and recognizes there are many sacrifices behind her arrival, affording her success in the restaurant business. She is acutely aware of the sacrifices that others have made for her success (but, as the novel progresses, readers understand that she, too, has made sacrifices).
“She would have preferred to stay in Cà Mau with her friends, embroidering tablecloths for export. Her aunt, though, had persuaded her parents that they must relinquish their life that held no promise, sacrifice their own generation so the next one could be educated. And so Bach found herself in a factory that made electronic scoreboards. She soldered circuits with ease because her fingers had already been trained to fill space with a needle, stitch by stitch.”
This passage is taken from the page entitled “Embroidery”, which is significant for its attention to detail. Whether stitches or circuits or bits of pickled garlic, the intricacies are vitally important pieces of a whole in Kim Thúy’s fiction.
Mãn is struck by matters of scale. She muses: “How had Richard Serra imagined that rust-coved steel was sensual? How does a person transport a work of art twenty times bigger than my kitchen? How does a person think so big?”
Similarly, one imagines Kim Thúy marvelling at the verbosity of an Ann-Marie MacDonald or Rohinton Mistry novel. Both Ru and Mãn are slim volumes which create the impression of deliberately and delicately chosen words strung together, extravagant prose poems rather than spare novellas.
(Presumably the same attention to detail was required on the translator’s part; Sheila Fischman’s award-winning translations from French-language works are widely acclaimed, and her work with Dominique Fortier’s Wonder landed it on my list of favourite reads for this year.)
A preoccupation with human appetites, for love and for cake, makes Kim Thúy’s Mãn a sensual read in the same vein as Laura Esquival’s Like Water for Chocolate and Isabelle Allende’s Aphrodite.
“My Vietnamese-style banana cake was delicious, but it looked frightening, sturdy and uncouth as it was. In no time, Philippe softened it with foamy caramel made from raw cane sugar. Thus he married East and West, as with the cake with whole bananas fitted into baguette dough soaked in coconut milk and cow’s milk. Five hours’ baking at a low temperature forced the bread to play a protective role for the fruit as the bananas slowly delivered up the sugar in their flesh. Anyone lucky enough to taste that cake freshly baked could see, when cutting it, the crimson of the bananas embarrassed at being caught in the act.”
But while bananas might well be embarrassed in Mãn’s kitchen, emotions are tightly controlled in Kim Thúy’s narrative. The value she places on order and construct is remarkable indeed.
And, in turn, the most memorable part of this work is a relationship which cannot be discussed without spoilers but which “constructed a new universe” for Mãn.
As skillfully crafted as a fine dessert, with “words that were hardly ever spoken, such as ‘my angel,’ which became exclusively mine”, this love story is molded and tended and it thrives and flourishes.
Whether readers are fulfilled depends upon their appetites, but they surely will recognize the artistry at work.