Thursday, 23 April 2015

Kim Thúy’s second novel is a chronicle of fragments

Full title: Mãn
Author: Kim Thúy
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 160 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Clerkenwell Press (2014)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Mãn is a chronicle of fragments. The protagonist-narrator, also the title character, is herself a person made from bits and pieces, a puzzle continuously rearranged, an identity in the process of being reshaped. She was born in a Vietnam torn apart by war. This is, perhaps, the first layer of fragmentation a Western reader (in Canada or elsewhere) is likely to spot.
Political division, a form of taking-apart, a form of cutting into pieces, is the backdrop of the novel as a whole. Kim Thúy makes repeated references to this political tearing-apart, to the severing of lives and destinies. Starting from Vietnam and going further, to Mãn's immigration, to her new place in Canada, to her new status, to her new identities, the novel takes her apart and glues her together again. Mãn's trajectory is built with the help of her memory. She remembers things because there's another life that she needs to keep alive; and by remembering she puts herself together – piece by piece, story by story.
She remembers because through memory she is able to conceptualise episodes too disparate to be unified under the cover of the same story. Her remembering, therefore, is a narrative exercise. This is why she is so skilled in storytelling. Things Mãn recalls are little stories shaped according to the elusive model of the tableau – each piece capable of standing alone, offering a different flavour, a different object for the senses.
At the level of structure too, what is immediately noticeable is this chopping-up of the overall story into small slices, between which words are left like wedges, to fill the gaps. Words and phrases forming a vocabulary of rupture. These words that sew the narrative together are like spices flavouring a large piece of meat: they appear here and there, inflict their punch, then disappear, leaving behind nothing but the memory of their sounds and the barbaric reconstitution of their translations (from Vietnamese into French, from French into English).


Kim Thúy. Source: La Presse
The analogy between words and spices isn't made here just for the sake of analogy. Mãn is a cook. She works in her husband's restaurant and experiences, through food, leaps of identity. When she meets Julie, a Canadian enthusiast who introduces her to the world of fine cuisine, Mãn learns how to speak of her food in aesthetic terms. She learns how to be enthusiastic about food the way Westerners grow enthusiastic about things Oriental in general. Her relocation is, therefore, a re-membering, a putting of things together so as to build a new Mãn: one who starts looking at the Vietnamese values of her early life with the eye of the connoisseur (a Western concept in itself).
Becoming an expert (a kind of celebrity who gets invited by TV stations, and who travels the world to learn new recipes) marks a drastic change; a change that affects not only Mãn’s rapport to her past but also her response to the present. Married, with two children, she finds love outside marriage, the way she'd found a new identity by leaving Vietnam. The man she falls in love with is himself a person made of fragments. Luc, a Paris chef she met during a trip to France, brings up again the issue of fragmentation. When he declares his love he does so by pointing out Mãn's body, a collection of parts that he separates in order to admire individually.
Mãn's response is similar. She falls in love with Luc, but most importantly, with his ability to transform her:
"If I were a photo, Luc would be the developer and the fixer of my face, which until that day existed only in negative."
Prior to Luc, love had been indistinguishable from duty. Mãn had had a moral obligation to remember the women who had repeatedly played the role of the mother when she was an orphaned child. They had initiated her in the language of submission, a language of disappearance:
"Maman had taught me very early to avoid conflicts, to breathe without existing, to melt into the landscape."
Mãn also has a strong sense of respect for her husband. She had learned, it seems, through her Vietnamese legacy, to become invisible, to fade in the shadow of a culturally-induced topos of deference. She says:
"I had learned to glide silently both inside and outside the covers because my husband was a very light sleeper."
She also says (and again, in relation to the way she relates to her husband, a silent man who seems, nevertheless, to carry with him the attributes of authority):
"I anticipated, I foresaw, I prepared, my hands as invisible as Eleanor Roosevelt’s, who filled her husband’s fountain pen every morning before putting it back in his jacket pocket."
Given this domestic congealment of the self, Mãn finds in love and in cooking two ways of evading what seems to be destiny. With the dishes she makes, she puts together a cultural past; with love, she reassembles a sentimental present.
Mãn’s relationship to Luc gives Kim Thúy the opportunity to finish the novel with a reference to yet another memorable re-membering: the reconstruction of the lover's body. Mãn had fallen in love with the beauty spots on Luc's body. She’d counted them, she’d stroked them, she’d kissed them, she’d experienced them as another aesthetic ecstasy. And when the inevitable separation takes place (another fragmentation, of course!) and Luc is about to become just another memory, Mãn does what she has always been good at: re-member the lover, create him again from recollections. She decides to decorate her own body with replicas of Luc's beauty spots. She pays a beautician to do the job, and the beautician does it masterfully.
"Those visits to the beautician allowed me to reproduce on my body those red dots of Luc’s that I knew by heart. I think that on the day when I have all those red dots tattooed, if I were to join them, I would be drawing the map of his destiny on my body."
Mãn recreates the body of the lover in a truly intimate way: inked on her own body, copied, re-produced, re-acknowledged. Fragment upon fragment, the work of the puzzle is now turned into a thing of the future.