Here’s my hypothesis about what has led to this mini-genre. From Joseph Conrad to Graham Greene, South Asia has been an exotic magnet for fiction writers. But for most of the latter part of the 20th century, it was effectively off limits — the defeat of the French, the fracture of Vietnam, the American War (as Gibb informs us it is now known in Vietnam) and the internal conflicts that followed kept the door closed. President Clinton opened the door and the area has been increasingly accessible ever since (Mrs. KfC has visited, I have not). For Canadian author travellers, it is particularly attractive (beginning, of course, with affordability). We didn’t take part in the war, but were certainly affected by it. Every major Canadian city has a significant South Asian community — you don’t have to travel far to find a bowl of pho, the Vietnamese rice noodle soup usually served with beef or chicken.
Pho and that notion of “return” are very much present in this year’s Canadian Vietnam book, The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb whose previous novel, Sweetness in the Belly, attracted a favorable critical response and a Giller shortlisting (I did read it but confess to only a vague memory of the book). Gibb has said that this novel was inspired by a tour guide whom she met on a visit to Hanoi. She was intrigued by the idea of the centuries of turbulent history that produced him — and how that played out in present-day Hanoi. (You can read her full version of the genesis of her novel at publisher Random House Canada’s website here — it is well worth the visit.)
Tu’ is that tour guide character in the book, but there are stories from several generations before him that supply the tender, tasty beef of the story (sorry about the pho metaphor). The focal point is Old Man Hung, whom Gibb introduces in the book’s opening paragraphs:
Old Man Hung makes the best pho in the city and has done so for decades. Where he once had a shop, though, he no longer does, because the rents are exorbitant, both the hard rents and the soft — the bribes a proprietor must pay to the police in the new era of freedom.
Still, Hung has a mission, if not a licence. He pushes the firewood, braziers and giant pots balanced on his wooden cart through the streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter in the middle of the night and sets up his stall in the sliver of alleyway, on an oily patch of factory ground, at the frayed edge of a park or in the hollow carcass of a building under construction. He’s a resourceful, roving man who, until very recently, could challenge those less than half his age to keep up.
(Note: The actual book includes the accents on the proper names which I am not attempting to reproduce in this review — the typography does introduce an exotic element in the book that does not get in the way of reading.)
Hung was a mere boy when his father sent him to work in his Uncle Chien’s pho shop in Hanoi in 1933. He was the ninth of 10 children, bad enough in itself but a dark birthmark on his face led his mother to agree with a fortune teller’s decree that he was “tattooed with the promise of future darkness” and she made the child’s life a misery. Indeed, in the seven-plus decades since, he has lived through — and survived — all of the versions of “darkness” that Hanoi has experienced, adapting to the peculiar politics and demands of each phase and finding a way to make pho all the while.
The Beauty of Humanity Movement of the title used to meet in Hung’s pho shop (he’d inherited it from Uncle Chien) in the 1950s, Gibb introduces the succeeding generations midway through the first chapter at Hung’s current location as they arrive with bowls in hand. Hung has to move his spot frequently, but their is a customer-based telegraph that lets regulars know where he is. This time the pho-maker “has set up shop in the empty kidney of a future swimming pool attached to a hotel under construction near the Ngu Ha Temple”:
Ah, and here is Binh, greeting him quietly as always, bowl in hands, never particularly animated until he’s had a few sips of broth. Although he is well into his fifties, Binh is a man still so like the boy who used to accompany his father, Dao, to Hung’s pho sop back in the revolutionary days of the early 1950s. The world has changed much since then, but Binh remains the same mindful, meditative soul who used to pad about after Hung, helping him carry the empty bowls out to the dishwasher in the alleyway behind the shop.
Binh is tour guide Tu’s father, so that effectively gives us five generations: Chien, Hung, Dao, Binh, Tu. As the book unfolds, Gibb uses each of these characters to illustrate the tensions in Hanoi in their particular generation. The Beauty of Humanity Movement back in the 1950s were indigenous intellectuals — writers, poets and artists. The pho shop was the Hanoi equivalent of their colonial French master’s Paris cafes and the artistes who met there — libertarians and nationalist opposed to the colonizers, they found themselves equally at odds with the Communists who kicked the French out in Vietnam’s first modern war with the Western world. Many of them were sent to rural “re-education” camps, the model that Mao would use to disastrous effect a few decades later in China.
The “returnee” in Gibb’s novel is Maggie, an art curator, born in Vietnam but raised in the U.S. midwest. She and her mother escaped just before the U.S. conceded defeat — her artist father never made it out and she has returned to the land of her birth to try to find his story:
She’s spent a frustrating and painful year combing through the archives that have yielded no evidence of her father. She’s found no reference to him in the archives of the Fine Arts Museum, not even a single catalogue for an exhibition where his work might have been shown. Even his presence at the city’s former Ecole des Beaux Arts is in question — there’s no record of his attendance at the school. The censors literally cut the names of dissident artists out of registries and publications. They’ve been systematic and thorough revisionists, leaving a history full of holes.
I apologize for that very lengthy set-up of the novel in this review, but it is reflective of the book itself. Indeed in a summer of reading where a lot of novels have produced 100 or 150 pages of promise and then tailed off badly, Gibb’s is the exact opposite. The first half, for me, was often frustrating as I tried to stay with the author as she established the historical elements of her story — the last half picks up in both story and tension as she brings together the experiences of the generations from Hung through Dao and Binh to Tu’ and Maggie picking up her ancestral search. In the final outcome, the persistent reader is rewarded with a very engrossing artistic detective story that eventually pulls the many historical threads together.
The Beauty of Humanity Movement is not a great book but it is a highly readable one. For a society that has survived the struggles of more than seventy years in the way that Hanoi has (and that is only the modern part of the story) — and now seems to be emerging into some version of global prosperity — it is a useful picture of how some minor players, ordinary citizens, found a way to adapt and lived through the experience. I was reminded at times of Andrea Levy’s The Long Song — the many conflicts and atrocities in South Asia are one our generation’s version of the slavery that July describes in that book. Gibb’s portrayal is sympathetic and humane; I suspect that those with a deeper interest in modern South Asia than mine might find it even more powerful a book than I did.