Mãn by Kim Thúy, trans. by Sheila Fischman (Vintage Canada, 2015)
Reviewed by Rebecca Valley
Usually, the books I pluck from bookstore shelves are familiar – familiar authors, familiar titles from endless lists of books I have to read before I die lest I pass on without have experienced the one literary treasure I’d been holding out for. This book was different.
I found Kim Thuy’s novel Mãn in the clearance section of Elliot Bay Books in Seattle, a little gem among a hodgepodge of forgotten coffee table history tomes and books of smoothie recipes. The plot – a Vietnamese woman marries her way to Montreal, becomes a renowned chef, falls in love – wasn’t as interesting to me as the structure of the book when I cracked it open. The chapters were minuscule, typically less than a page, never more than two pages, and were marked with just a single word in Vietnamese, and its translation in English. The format reminded me of a favorite book, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s Madeleine is Sleeping, a dreamy novel made of prose poems only a few sentences long. It was on sale for $6. I figured it was worth the risk, despite the fact that since Eat, Pray, Love hit the literary scene I’d been avoiding any and all books about foreign cuisine.
Thuy’s novel was more of a surprise than I bargained for, and in a beautiful way. The narrator, Mãn, is stoic, quiet, appears and disappears throughout the novel like a face in a crowd. Much of the beginning of the novel takes place in Vietnam, where Mãn’s mother raised her alone and on the run as a spy for the resistance during the Vietnam War. Though marketed as a book about food, for me Mãn felt more like a book about translation. Mãn recounts diagramming complex French sentences from the confiscated pages of classic novels now used to wrap meat at the market, and tells of encounters with a man who recited French words and their meanings from memory because his treasured dictionary was taken away. Later, when Mãn uses her food more than her words to remember, her dishes become translations of moments, places, memories. Early in the book, when she is cooking in her husband’s restaurant in Montreal, she offers
“just one dish per day. One memory at a time, because it took me a lot of effort not to let my emotions overflow the plates.”
Each ingredient, each preparation, becomes a narrative not unlike the ones she told of her Maman’s childhood.
In other ways, Mãn feels like a translation of a different kind: a translation not of memories, but of cultural values and experiences. Mãn continually ties emotion to Vietnamese culture, and to her memory of her childhood. Of grief, she writes,
“Most Vietnamese believe in the existence of wandering souls who haunt life, who watch for death, who stay wedged between the two. Every year, in the seventh lunar month, people burn incense, paper money and garments to help the ghosts free themselves, to leave the world of the living, which has not anticipated a place for them. When I threw the false paper money, orange and gold, into the fire, I hoped for both the ghosts and Maman’s sadness, even if she denied the ghosts’ existence with the same fervour as the Communist Party…”
In these moments, when Mãn returns to Vietnam in her memory, it feels like she is trying to translate her perception of the world into a language the reader can understand, through metaphor and folk tales and the translated definitions of words. Like the ghosts she describes, who drift between two worlds, Mãn is caught between Vietnam and Montreal, between French and Vietnamese, between her traditional, conservative role within her marriage and the passion she discovers in her friend Julie and her lover Luc.. We come to understand Mãn through her observations, which becomes complicated when she delves into new territory with her lover, Luc. In that regard, Mãn is as much about translation of the self between two worlds as it is translation of emotion into food.
Though the end of this book abandons earlier, more evocative images to delve into an occasionally cliché romance, the delicacy of Mãn’s character and the fluid, brief snippets of prose carried me through this novel with few complaints. Mãn is a translation of self into a new language, one that has more room for passion, love, and pain. One of the greatest joys of reading this book was the simultaneous window into Vietnamese culture and expansion of my notion of what it means to be Canadian. I grew up with tourtieres at Christmas dinner and my grandparents muttering to each other in thick Canadian French when they didn’t want my brother and I to understand what they were saying, but after reading Thuy’s book I felt like I’d discovered a facet of Quebecois culture that until now had escaped me. I take off my hat both to Thuy for her beautiful, sparse prose, and to her translator Sheila Fischman, whose work I plan on investigating in greater depth in the very near future.
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