By sheer coincidence, three of the five most recent books I’ve read were set in Vietnam or featured Vietnamese characters. One of these was Monique Truong’s debut novel, The Book of Salt, in which the main character, Binh, works as a cook for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. (The idea for the novel came to the author when she learned, from reading Toklas’s famous cookbook, that Stein and Toklas had employed “Indochinese cooks.”) In the passage below, Binh describes the interviews he has to submit to in order to find a job and during which he has to explain what he has been doing between his departure from Vietnam and his arrival in Paris.
Three years unaccounted for! you could almost hear them thinking. Most Parisians can ignore and even forgive me for not having the refinement to be born amidst the ringing bells of their cathedrals, especially since I was born instead amidst the ringing bells of the replicas of their cathedrals, erected in a far off colony to remind them of the majesty, the piety, of home. As long as Monsieur and Madame can account for my whereabouts in their city or in one of their colonies, then they can trust that the République and the Catholic Church have had their watchful eyes on me. But when I expose myself as a subject who may have strayed, who may have lived a life unchecked, ungoverned, undocumented, and unrepentant, I become, for them, suspect.
What struck me about this passage is how easily it could apply to another employee (a chauffeur, say) from another of France’s former colonies (Morocco, for instance.) The relationship between servant and master seems to be colored in similar hues, and it made me wonder if that was because of the similarities in the two colonial relationships.