Raised in the United States but Vietnamese by birth, Maggie has come to Hanoi seeking clues to the fate of her father, a dissident artist who disappeared during the war. Her search brings her to Old Man Hu'ng's pho stall. The old man once had a shop frequented by revolutionary artists, but now Tu', a hustling young entrepreneur, is his most faithful customer. Maggie, Hu'ng, and Tu' come together during a highly charged season that will mark them forever. Exploring the indelible legacies of war and art, as well as love's power to renew, The Beauty of Humanity Movement is a stellar achievement by a globally renowned literary light.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.50(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
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Table of Contents
A SEAM BETWEEN WORLDS
THE BEAUTY OF HUMANITY
THE QUIET INSIDE
AN INVERTED WORLD
PROPAGANDA AND POLITICAL EDUCATION
SHIT ON A CANVAS
OUR PLACE IN BUDDHA’S UNIVERSE
THE MEMORY OF TASTE
THE CAMPAIGN TO RECTIFY ERRORS
THE REAL VIETNAM
A PROPER FRIEND
AN EMOTIONAL VOCABULARY
THE LADY NEXT DOOR
THE RAINBOW THAT FELL TO EARTH
A NOTE HANGS IN MIDAIR
VOICES OF THE DEAD
A STONE IN HIS HEART
AN OLD MAN’S DESTINY
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
Mouthing the Words
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING IN PUBLICATION DATA
Gibb, Camilla. The beauty of humanity movement : a novel / Camilla Gibb.
1. Vietnamese Americans—Vietnam—Fiction. 2. Dissenters—Vietnam—Fiction. 3. Vietnam—Fiction. 1.
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For Phưong, Lan and Bao
A NOTE OF GRACE
Old Man Hưng makes the best phở 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 this new era of freedom.
Still, Hưng has a mission, if not a license. 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 a 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.
When he is forced to move on, word will travel from the herb seller, or the noodle maker or the man delivering newspapers to the shopkeepers along Hàng Bông Road who make sure to pass the information on to his customers, particularly to Bình, the one who is like a son to him, out buying a newspaper or a couple of cigarettes in the earliest of morning hours, returning home to rouse his own son, Tư, slapping their bowls, spoons and chopsticks into his satchel, jerking the motorbike out of his kitchen and into the alleyway, and joining the passengers of three million other motorbikes en route to breakfast, at least forty of them destined for Hưng.
His customers, largely men known to him for a number of years, are loyal, some might say dependent. He is loyal and most certainly dependent. This is his livelihood, his being, his way in the world, and has been ever since he first came to apprentice in his uncle Chiẽn’s phở shop at eleven years of age.
It was 1933 when his father sent him from the rice fields to the city, getting Hưng well out of the way of a mother who cherished him least of all her ten children. She’d kept him at a distance ever since a fortune teller had confirmed her suspicions that the large black mole stretching from the outer corner of Hưng’s left eye to the middle of his cheekbone was an inauspicious sign. Tattooed with the promise of future darkness, the fortune teller had decreed.
Hưng had come to his uncle Chiẽn with no name other than “nine,” denoting his place in the birth order, becoming Hưng only in Hanoi, under the guardianship of his uncle, a man who neither subscribed to village superstitions nor could afford to turn help away.
This morning, Hưng has set up shop in the empty kidney of a future swimming pool attached to a hotel under construction near the Ngũ Xá Temple. It has taken several attempts to get his fire started in the damp air, but as the dark gray of night yields to the lighter gray of clouded morning, the flames burn an orange as pure and vibrant as a monk’s robe.
Some of his customers have already begun to slip over the lip of the pool, running down its incline with their bowls, spoons and chopsticks, racing to be head of the queue.
Hưng works like the expert he is, using his right hand to lay noodles into each bowl presented to him, covering these with slices of rare beef, their edges curling immediately with the heat of the broth he is simultaneously ladling into each bowl with his left.
“There you go, Nguyễn. There you go, Phúc, little Min,” and off his first customers shuffle with their bowls to squat on the concrete incline, using their spoons and chopsticks to greet the dawn of a new day.
Ah, and here is Bình, 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, Bình is a man still so like the boy who used to accompany his father, Đạo, to Hưng’s phở shop back in the revolutionary days of the early 1950s. The world has changed much since then, but Bình remains the same mindful, meditative soul who used to pad about after Hưng, helping him carry the empty bowls out to the dishwasher in the alleyway behind the shop.
“There you go, Bình,” Hưng says, as he does every morning, dropping a handful of chopped green herbs into his bowl from shoulder height with exacting flourish.
“Hưng , what happened to your glasses?” Bình asks of the crack that bisects the left lens.
Hưng, loath to admit he inadvertently sat upon them last night, shrugs as if it is a mystery to him too.
“Come”—Bình gestures—“let me fix them for you.”
Hưng dutifully unhooks his glasses from his ears and hands them to Bình’s son, Tư, who is waiting beside his father with his empty bowl. Tư tucks them into his father’s shirt pocket, and Bình shuffles left, making way for his son.
Tư, just twenty-two years old but so full of confidence, greets Hưng with more words than Bình ever does and waves his chopsticks left and right as he tries to calculate the size of the pool. This is very much like him—Tư loves numbers in a way that seems to pain him. He used to teach math at a high school, but he has abandoned that recently in favor of entertaining tourists. Hưng is not sure all that foreign interaction is good for the boy, but he trusts Bình is monitoring the situation.
Hưng indulges Tư with a challenge this morning: “I’d like to see you calculate the pool’s volume in terms of the numbers of bowls of phở that would be required to fill it.”
Tư grins as he maneuvers his way carefully across the pool, holding his bowl right under his nose, the steam rising like incense smoldering in a temple to bathe his face.
Hưng has taught Tư, Bình and Bình’s father, Đạo, before him that you can tell a good broth by its aroma, the way it begs the body through the nose. And phở bắc—the phở of Hanoi—is the greatest seducer, because of the subtle dance of seasonings that animates the broth. It is not just the seasonings that make phở bắc distinct, it is provenance, a lesson Hưng would happily deliver to anyone interested in listening.
The history of Vietnam lies in this bowl, for it is in Hanoi, the Vietnamese heart, that phở was born, a combination of the rice noodles that predominated after a thousand years of Chinese occupation and the taste for beef the Vietnamese acquired under the French, who turned their cows away from plows and into bifteck and pot-au-feu. The name of their national soup is pronounced like this French word for fire, as Hưng’s uncle Chiẽn explained to him long ago.
“We’re a clever people,” his uncle had said. “We took the best the occupiers had to offer and made it our own. Fish sauce is the key—in matters of soup and well beyond. Even romance, some people say.”
It was only with the painful partitioning of the country in 1954 that phở went south; the million who fled communism held the taste of home in their mouths, the recipe in their hearts, but their eyes grew big in the markets of Saigon and they began to adulterate the recipe with imported herbs and vegetables. The phởs of Saigon had flourished brash with freedom and abundance while the North ate a poor man’s broth, plain and watered down, with chicken in place of beef as the Party ordered the closure of independent businesses like Hưng’s and a string of government-owned cafeterias opened in their place.
Terrible stuff it was, gray as stagnant rainwater in a gutter. Those who are old enough to remember it thank Hưng for getting rid of the moldy taste in their mouths. Kids of Tư’s generation probably can’t even imagine it. Tư was born just before the government’s desperately needed economic reforms of 1986, when the market was liberalized in order to alleviate starvation and independent ownership once again became a possibility. Only then could the true potential of phở be realized.
The challenge for Hưng now has less to do with the availability of ingredients than with the need for restraint. Hưng sees himself as a guardian of purity, eschewing bean sprouts and excessive green garnish in accordance with northern tradition. They may well have opened their doors to the world, but that does not mean they must pollute their bowls. Ăn bắc, mặc nam, they say—“eating as in the North, clothing as in the South”—something so fundamental must be respected through deference to tradition.
Hưng is a man governed by such principles rather than any laws, particularly those keenly enforced by the police that are of greatest inconvenience to him and those he serves. When the officers come to ticket him for trespassing or operating without a license after he has had the peace of setting up shop in the same location for a few consecutive days, his customers will be forced to run off clutching their bowls, sloshing broth against their freshly pressed shirts, losing noodles to the pavement, jumping aboard their motorbikes and lurching into the day.
Hưng’s crime is the same every day, but sometimes the police are in more of a mood to arrest a man than fine him. “Where did you relieve yourself this morning?” an officer in such a mood had asked him a few months ago.
Hưng had shaken his head. The question made no sense. “ Where did you pee, old man?” The officer raised his voice, threatening to arrest Hưng for resisting a police officer if he didn’t answer the question.
Hưng reluctantly pointed toward a patch of grass and asked, “Has peeing now been declared a crime?”
No, but that very patch of grass, as he was no doubt well aware, was the consecrated site upon which the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs would soon be erecting a new monument to honor the revolution’s martyrs and devotees. And so Hưng was promptly arrested for insulting the Communist Party, which is to say, the only party there is.
Hưng considered that night behind bars, lying on concrete and pissing into a communal bucket, mild punishment compared to the previous time he’d been charged with insulting the Party. Then they had disciplined his mouth by punching out most of his front teeth with the butt of a rifle.
“Why this waste of money on statues?” he shouted after Bình had paid the bribe to release him from prison the second time. “Why yet another monument for the revolution? It’s been fifty years of this. Oh, if they could read the insults in my mind . . .”
“They used to claim they could read minds,” Bình said, and off they wandered, mumbling together like two old men despite the almost thirty years between them, two old men who had indeed once believed in the Party’s telepathy.
Hưng serves the last man among today’s early shift of customers and looks over at Bình and Tư, the younger still making calculations in the air with his chopsticks, the elder concentrating on his bowl. He wonders whether it isn’t time for Tư to marry. He hopes Tư’s mother, Anh, is giving this matter some attention; if not, Tư may well be the last in this family line Hưng will serve.
The comforting clatter of metal spoons against porcelain is suddenly interrupted by a booming voice that floods the bloodless kidney, bouncing from side to side. Noodles slap against chins and silence falls. “What the hell are you all doing here?” a man yells, stepping down in heavy work boots. “I’ve got a project to supervise. I’ll have you all arrested if you don’t pack up and leave immediately!” He smacks a crowbar repeatedly against his thick-skinned palm.
Bình rises to his feet and all eyes turn toward him. “Sir, you have to smell this,” he says, nodding at the bowl in his hands.
Hưng feels a hot rush of pride fill his cheeks. Bình really is a son to him, if not by blood, then certainly through his devotion. What is blood without relationship, without life shared, in any case? Hưng has come to believe it is little more than something red.
A hush vibrates around the pool as the foreman steps toward Bình and demands to know their business. This is private property; what are they all doing squatting here like it’s mealtime on some communal farm?
“This is Hanoi’s greatest secret,” Bình says, his eyes lowered in deference. “Seriously. You have to know. It will change you.”
Despite the threat of the rusty crowbar, despite his familiarity with the pain such an instrument can cause, Hưng knows this is his moment. He shuffles forth across the concrete in his slippers. He holds his own bowl under the foreman’s nose, steam rising to envelop them both. His customers inhale as if sharing one set of lungs. No one makes a sound as the foreman licks his lips and takes the chopsticks Hưng offers. The foreman thrusts those chopsticks to the bottom of the bowl and lifts the noodles into the air, creating a wave that plunges the herbs to the bottom before they float back to the surface, infusing the noodles in the broth, just as every mother teaches her child.
The foreman proves he is just like every mother’s son. He leans over the bowl and inhales as he lays the noodles back down to rest in the broth, then clutches a few strands between his chopsticks and raises them to his mouth. The construction workers stand around the rim of the pool, watching their boss in silence. The foreman slurps broth from the spoon, lifts up a few more noodles with his chopsticks, curls them into his spoon, picks up a thin slice of beef, lays it on the bed of noodles, tweezes a piece of basil from the broth and places it on top of the beef, then puts this perfectly balanced combination, this yin and yang, into his mouth.
And then he grunts.
“I see what you mean,” he finally says to Bình, handing the bowl back to Hưng.
“Bring your bowl tomorrow. Tell your men too,” Hưng says quietly, squinting at the workers on the rim. His left eye is clouded over; his right discerns the outline of a row of men. “Half price for them,” he says, “free, of course, for you.”
“I’ll pay you full price,” says the foreman. “Just as long as you and your customers are out by seven.”
“Yes, sir,” says Hưng, shuffling back to the fatter end of the kidney to extinguish his fire. He feels a tremor of nervous laughter rattle beneath his ribs. He dares not look over at Bình. He smiles into the fire, sharing the victory with its embers instead.
It is not yet half past six—still plenty of time left to serve the latecomers who have just arrived, which Hưng does now with good humor and renewed concentration, laying noodles and beef into each bowl with his right hand, pouring ladlefuls of broth over the top with his left, his rhythm as even and essential as a beating heart.
Hưng recognizes each man by the state of his hands: the grease moons under the nails that mark a mechanic, the calluses of one who works a lathe, the chewed nails of a student writing exams.
But then whose lovely hands are these amid this parade of manly paws? The delicate hands of a woman who has, improbably, never engaged in manual labor. And the bowl. Shining. Translucent. Porcelain.
Excerpted from "The Beauty of Humanity Movement"
Copyright © 2012 Camilla Gibb.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Reading Group Guide
Maggie Ly is a young and attractive Vietnamese American woman arriving in Hanoi with questions about the past. Although she and her mother were able to escape the country in 1975 aboard one of the last U.S. military planes out of Vietnam, her father was not as fortunate. Who he was and what happened to him are questions her mother was never able to answer for Maggie. The evidence of her father’s existence is slim, just one or two of his paintings and a few citations of his work for a dissident literary journal. Her search for clues is made even more difficult by the fact that, as one character says in the novel, Vietnam “is a country that erases its own history.” Apparently no one in Hanoi wishes to be reminded of the past. Furthermore, Maggie is a Viet Kieu (a foreigner of Vietnamese descent) and treated with open suspicion.
She finds an unlikely ally in a young tour group operator named Tu. As part of the new generation growing up in a more Western and capitalist Vietnam (the Doi Moi generation), Tu is full of an energy and confidence that is alien to his father’s generation. Maggie, as the curator of a new gallery in Hanoi’s exclusive Metropole hotel, hires Tu to help her research her father’s existence. Tu provides readers with a glimpse of contemporary Vietnam, a country of bustling activity and striking contradictions. We learn, for instance, that while someone may be arrested by the Bureau of Social Vice Prevention for making jokes about the communist party, another may idly watch naked women dancing on satellite television in a public restaurant. Later in the novel, after Tu is introduced to the world of contemporary Vietnamese art, he asks rhetorically, “Nationalistic art or pornography—are these really the only two artistic choices?”
The trail to Maggie’s father’s past goes cold until she meets the old soup seller Hung, who is a dear friend of Tu’s family. Hung is the Vietnamese everyman, and as such his story is the story of twentieth–century Vietnam. Though he is unwilling to relive his personal or national history, Maggie and Tu exert an almost magical force on his conscience and he embarks on a journey into the past that leaves him quite literally battered but, finally, at peace. His random, disconnected memories provide the rich historical backdrop to the novel. As a young boy in the 1930s he is sent from his peasant village to work at his uncle’s restaurant in French colonial Hanoi, where the air is redolent of revolution. From Hung’s vantage point we see partial but vivid glimpses of key events in Vietnam’s long road to independence and unification, from the Japanese occupation to the defeat of the French in 1954, from the disastrous land reform policies of Ho Chi Minh to the war with America.
At the center of Hung’s recollections is a short–lived art movement in the 1950s to which he belonged, if only peripherally. Two figures from this movement—known as the Beauty of Humanity Movement—have remained in Hung’s mind ever since: one, living, whose memory Hung has tried unsuccessfully to bury and the other, dead, whose memory Hung has, with religious devotion, struggled to preserve. The group’s leader Dao—a character based on the real revolutionary poet Phan Khoi—died in a communist reeducation camp leaving Hung with a tragic but inspiring image of artistic and political heroism. Through Tu, Dao’s grandson and true inheritor of his courage, Hung’s recollections of Dao vividly return. Lan is Hung’s old beloved, and though she still lives as his neighbor, Hung has scorned her for forty years due to an unspeakable betrayal. Maggie’s lithe and beautiful form reminds him of the Lan he first fell in love with. The agonizing rehearsal of this distant part of his life eventually liberates Hung and he is able to finally reconcile with Lan and to piece together a few significant facts about Maggie’s father, who was also part of the Beauty of Humanity Movement. Maggie and Hung, two characters separated by age, culture, and wealth, nevertheless share an intricate and powerful bond at the novel’s conclusion.
ABOUT CAMILLA GIBB
Camilla Gibb is the author of four novels—Mouthing the Words, The Petty Details of So–and–so’s Life,Sweetness in the Belly, and The Beauty of Humanity Movement—as well as numerous short stories, articles, and book reviews. Her books have been published in eighteen countries and translated into fourteen languages and she was named by the jury of the prestigious Orange Prize as one of twenty–one writers to watch in the new century. Among her literary achievements are a Trillium Book Award in 2006, a Scotiabank Giller Prize short list nominee in 2005, a CBC Canadian Literary Award for short fiction in 2001, and a City of Toronto Book Award in 2000. Before becoming a full–time writer, she completed a Ph.D. in social anthropology at Oxford University and spent two years at the University of Toronto as a postdoctoral research fellow. She is currently an adjunct faculty member of the graduate creative writing programs at the University of Guelph–Humber and the University of Toronto.
A CONVERSATION WITH CAMILLA GIBB
Q. You have a degree in social anthropology. Did that help you at all in writing a book set in a foreign culture? Did you approach your characters as an ethnographer?
I don’t take an ethnographic approach to my characters, but I take an ethnographic approach to research. The questions I ask as a writer are the same ones that compelled me as an anthropologist—who we are, where we belong, how culture shapes and defines us. In order to investigate those questions, I need to see how people live. I need to imagine my characters in terms of the constraints and cultural norms that exist for them in order for them to feel realistic.
Q. What is the secret to a good bowl of pho? Can a true bowl of pho bac be found in North America?
Northern pho is very bland to the North American palate. The majority of restaurants in the West make a southern pho and allow us to garnish it liberally with mint and basil, hoisin and hot sauce.
It takes hours to make a perfect broth. Sorry to say it, but it’s really not the same without MSG.
Q. Has there been any reaction to the book in Vietnam or in the Vietnamese American community?
The general reaction I’ve had is that it’s a relief to read a happy story about Vietnam. I hear this most often from people who left Vietnam as children and have not had happy stories about the country passed down to them.
Q. In the Author’s Note you mention the novels of Duong Thu Huong. How does she confront this troubled past? Could you make any generalizations about Vietnamese literary responses—official and unofficial—to the country’s history?
She is something of an anomaly. There isn’t really a novel–writing or reading tradition in Vietnam. One would have been cultivated under the French, but then this would have been rejected as bourgeois. Duong writes about the extreme poverty of the 1980s, about the tensions between artists and the state, about deprivation, control, and confinement. And she generally gets away with it, though she isn’t published in Vietnam. Earlier writers engaged in acts of resistance by referencing Chinese domination or French occupation. Duong is writing about Vietnamese oppression, though her work is not generally being read in Vietnam.
Q. The flavor enhancer MSG occupies a magical, though small, place in this novel. While MSG is something that is avoided by Westerners, does it mean something quite different to Vietnamese cooks and consumers?
It provides the fifth taste—umami—and in so doing, completes or rounds out all the other flavors. It became so rare and expensive during the communist era that it really is regarded as a luxury, particularly by the older generation.
Q. Most writers who have approached Vietnam usually do so through the prism of war and from a decidedly Western perspective. The Quiet American and The Things They Carried are just two notable examples. Were you consciously trying to set this tradition on its head by writing a novel from a Vietnamese perspective?
The war lasted ten years. Of course it was devastating for the Vietnamese, but there have been many other wars, a thousand years of Chinese domination and eighty years of French occupation. The Vietnam War is our persistent narrative about Vietnam. Not theirs. Today, the lifting of the trade embargo with the United States and the flow of goods and information between East and West has a much bigger role to play in terms of shaping attitudes toward the United States and changing lives than the war. Sixty percent of the population was born after the war. It’s not a direct memory for the majority of the population. I simply wanted to put the war in perspective. I wanted to tell stories that we, in the West, had not heard.
Q. In your novel Sweetness in the Belly, the main character Lilly is marked as a foreigner wherever she goes, Ethiopia, England, etc. Her attempt to discover who she is lies at the heart of that novel, much like Maggie’s quest in this novel. As a writer, do you find yourself drawn to these themes of connectedness and identity?
Writers and anthropologists share something in common—a sense of alienation or remove, a stance that allows them to make observations about being human. These are my preoccupations. I can’t escape them.
Q. To many readers, your portrait of the contemporary Vietnamese art world will come as a shock. It seems to resemble a maligned area of contemporary American art, but could say something about the importance of this phenomenon for Vietnam? What position does it have in Vietnamese society? Is there any art there that is not either propaganda or pornography?
The government still employs artists as propagandists. Some artists challenge the censors with explicitly political or sexual imagery, but this work isn’t going to find a home in Vietnam. Over 98 percent of the contemporary art being produced in Vietnam leaves the country. There is no appetite for contemporary art yet—that only begins to emerge with the rise of a middle class. Art in people’s homes is generally religious iconography. The contemporary art that is produced, then, largely appeals to Western tastes, often reaffirming romantic imagery we associate with the country. Of course there are exceptions, but if this stock imagery is what sells, this is what will be produced.
Q. Despite its violent history, Vietnam and Southeast Asia generally have enchanted Westerners for centuries. Were you ever worried you would end up romanticizing the East as many have done before you?
I sincerely hope I have avoided doing so. The real romance in this book is the love story at its heart.
Q. Are you working on a new novel now?
I’m working on a memoir about the first twenty–four months of motherhood.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Last weekend, I was looking through the new fiction section of the local bookstore. Attracted by the catchy title, I grabbed "The Beauty of Humanity Movement" by Camilla Gibb off the shelf. The first sentence is: "Old man Hung makes the best ph? in the city and has done so for decades." This simple sentence got me so excited: a novel set in Vietnam with the proper use of accents on Vietnamese words. For readers familiar with Vietnamese, that means you can actually pronounce the words as they really are. And Hung, the protagonist of the novel, sells ph?! After skimming the opening pages which describes how this national dish is prepared I was hooked. In fact, I planned to buy the book, hop into a cab and go for some ph?. But "The Beauty of Humanity Movement" is not just about food. It tells the story of Vietnamese writers and artists inspired by the independence of the country in 1954, who wanted to express their true thoughts and feelings. Living in the new North Vietnam, these artists briefly published two publications, "Nhân Van" (Humanism) and "Giai Ph?m" (Fine Works). Meanwhile, the Communist Party was undertaking land reform, eliminating perceived class enemies and cementing its hold on society. The clash became known as the Nhân Van - Giai Ph?m affair, or what the book eloquently refers to as the Beauty of Humanity Movement. In a series of alternating scenes between the present (Vietnam circa 2006) and the past (the mid 1950s), readers get a glimpse of two pivotal eras in the country's history: the years after independence and the current d?i m?i period. The book, written by a Canadian author, does a fine job of capturing the hopes and challenges of quintessential Vietnamese characters. The weaknesses, like a few mispelled Vietnamese names, are relatively minor. More importantly, the novel avoids the typical Western depiction of Vietnam through the eyes of an American GI or French colonial figure. For those tired of the "Miss Vietnam" cliche, the main Vietnamese woman character is thankfully not a prostitute. The really amazing characters are the poets who penned lines such as: "We believe absolutely in communism, the most wonderful ideal of mankind, the youngest, the freshest ideal in all history. But if a single style is imposed on all writers and artists, the day is not far off when all flowers will be turned into chrysanthemums." Or the painter who drew two youthful tigers fighting--the kindred animals representing North and South Vietnam plunged into a brutal civil war. A sign of a great book is whether it can transport the reader to another place and time. If you want to feel Hanoi, travel through the Old Quarter, dip your feet into H? Tây, read Camilla Gibb's "The Beauty of Humanity Movement".
I must confess that Camilla Gibb is one of my favourite Canadian authors. I first fell in love with her Petty Details of So-and-So's Life and continued my love affair with Sweetness in the Belly. Mouthing the Words, although a difficult read, was told with authenticity and tenderness.Being a traveller at heart, any novel set in Asia immediately draws my eye so I expected to fall in love with this novel. And I did.The Beauty of Humanity Movement is about daring to express original thoughts at a time when those thoughts are not welcome. It is about fighting to speak the truth and the cost that such action entails. Maggie is an art specialist who was raised in America but returns to Vietnam in order to find her father who was torn from her at a very young age. During her quest, she not only uncovers information about her father and his contemporaries but also immerses herself in this hitherto unfamiliar culture. Gibb moves not only from one art form to another, from one culture to another, from past to present but also through the generations. There is beauty in this movement and despite the temptation to believe there is little beauty in humanity, Gibb brings us around to a deeper understanding of our place in the world, of our belonging to an international community and of our obligations to civilization.
Asia has long fascinated me, Vietnam in particular. I can't really account for the appeal other than acknowledging that there is one. And modern Vietnam, the Vietnam to emerge from the devastation of the war and then the restrictive and punitive Communist measures, intrigues me most of all. It is this Vietnam then, that Gibb evokes in her newest novel, a novel about art and truth and conviction. Opening with itinerent pho maker Old Man Hung finding the latest in a never-ending series of places to sell his fragrant broth, the reader is introduced to this man who had once been the center around whom an arts movement once flourished and the two men amongst his regulars, father Binh and son Tu, who have become the closest thing he has to a family. Into Hung's regular existence comes art curator Maggie Ly, a Viet Kieu, born in Vietnam but raised overseas (America in Maggie's case). Maggie is searching for any sign of her father's past but she has only hit dead ends until she finds Old Man Hung and a faint glimmer of hope. Maggie's presence and her inquiry about her father, an artist who escaped a reeducation camp with his hands permanently crippled, jolts Hung back into his past. Hung's pho shop had, in the years immediately following the war, been a meeting place, an anchor, for the Beauty of Humanity Movement group of artists who daringly questioned the path the country was taking. Dao, Binh's father and Tu's grandfather, had been at the forefront of the movement, insisting on using artwork and poetry revolutionarily. But the group went too far and they were betrayed, Hung lost his shop, and Binh lost his father. With the opening up of Vietnam, Maggie has come in hopes of finding a trace of her father, most likely in this group of determined artists and poets who stood by their convictions even in the face of harassment and arrest. The narrative is triple-stranded, focused on Hung's memories of the past and of all those who died, Maggie's history and search for proof of her father's life before her, and Tu's sanitized or narrowly focused history of Vietnam offered in the course of his job as a tour guide for Westerners. All three of these threads are important to the tale although Hung's have perhaps the most weight as they tie everything together; the past informs the future. The writing is patient, unfolding slowly, revealing the smallest of historical information carefully and almost secretively. Descriptions are vivid and full although occasionally a bit much. Like Hung's pho, Gibb's novel is simple, well-balanced, and satisfying as well as saving room for the unexpected to pull all the flavors together into a seamless whole. Book clubs looking for a very different perspective on the Vietnam War and its long-term effect on the Vietnamese people will find much to discuss and enjoy here.