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Authors: Kim Thuy

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The story of the little nine-year-old girl imprisoned for several months after trying to escape by boat explained the taste of tomato and parsley soup better than the picture next to the recipe. We had chosen it in honour of Hồng. She was that little girl, separated from her father and her older brother
during their arrest. Minutes before her father pushed her into the crowd crammed onto the boat, he had told her that in no circumstances was she to identify him. She had to tell the police she was travelling alone with her twelve-year-old brother. She'd ended up in the women's prison, isolated from the men's by sheets of metal. Her brother had dug a small space under it so he could hold her hand during the night. In daytime she would go all the way to the end of the camp, where only a wire fence separated them. That way, her brother could keep an eye on her. Their father kept as far from his children as possible, changing his name and lying about his address. He never turned around, even when he heard them, sitting on their heels on soil dried by the pacing prisoners, crying from fear and hunger. He hoped that their innocence and their loneliness would allow them to be freed before him. His wish was granted. The children went back to the house, whereas he remained, even after the prison had been shut down for years.

Hồng's final memory of her father is a faded yellow plastic bowl filled with clear broth and a piece of tomato and a few bits of parsley stem. He had placed it in a corner of the yard, going past her brother, who had held on to the bowl in the circle of his folded legs and waited for Hồng to arrive at the fence to make her drink a little of the tomato water. She had never tasted anything so delicious. Since her
liberation, she had been trying to re-create those tastes by making the soup at least once a week. No matter what variety of tomato she tried, she never managed to reproduce the indelible but elusive memory of those few sips. And so we immortalized the recipe in memory of her father.

đòn gánh

the yoke

LA PALANCHE
was a resounding success across the province, so much so that a producer suggested a television cooking show. I wanted to broaden the experiment we'd worked on with Philippe, so Julie invited chefs to revisit or to reinvent our Vietnamese recipes on screen, with me. These collaborations confirmed for us that mainly we were creating the same balance of tastes in the mouth but by using ingredients specific to each chef's region. The osso bucco was brightened up by gremolata, while the lemongrass beef stew was served with pickled daikon for its slightly bitter taste. In traditional Québécois cuisine, beef meatballs are cooked in a brown sauce whose consistency and colour resembles the one based on soya and fermented black beans that garnishes grilled Vietnamese meatballs. In Louisiana, fish is coated in Cajun spices to blacken it, while the Vietnamese use lemongrass and minced garlic.

Of course, certain tastes have an exclusive identity and well-defined borders. For instance, none of the chefs I met knew what to do with the cartilage in chicken bones, while people in Bangkok go into ecstasies over those breaded lumps. It would be cruel of me to impose fermented shrimp paste, intensely mauve and aromatic, on my guest chefs, as it would be to feed them green guavas drenched in salt with very hot peppers. Salmon, however, grilled or fried, goes well with a salad of green mango and ginger. Like friends of long standing, fish sauce goes perfectly with
maple syrup in a marinade for spareribs, while in a soup made with tamarind, tomatoes, pineapple and fish, celery is a worthy substitute for the stems of elephant ears. The two vegetables absorb the flavours and carry the broth into their porous flesh as submissively as a servant, at the same time as present as an aspirate
h
. Oddly enough, the leaf of the elephant ear, unlike its porous stem, could provide shelter from rain because it is impermeable, like the leaves of water lilies and lotus blossoms. Julie, charmed by the two facets of those plants, had a pond dug in the restaurant's backyard for floating tropical flowers. As soon as the first bud appeared, Maman would recite a popular traditional song that every Vietnamese knows by heart:

Trong đầm gì đẹp bằng sen
,

Lá xanh, bông trắng lại chen nhụy vàng
,

Nhụy vàng, bông trắng, lá xanh
,

Gần bùn mà chẳng hôi tanh mùi bùn
.

What is lovelier than the lotus in the swamp,

Its green leaves compete with white petals, with yellow pistils,

Yellow pistils, white petals, green leaves,

Near to the mud but without its stench.

thơ

poem

WE PRINTED HUNDREDS OF
copies of both versions of this poem to offer to our customers, who came to bask in the garden on canvas beach chairs. Students, often aspiring writers or poets, would meet on the patio under Maman's giant squash plants, to write side by side, exchange one word for another, and reassure those who panicked over the blank page. Unobtrusively, in the privacy of that urban oasis, books were launched and texts regularly read by their authors on nights when the moon was full.

cao su

rubber

AT THE SAME TIME
,
La Palanche
was winning over Paris, where many readers had a close relationship with Vietnam. For some it called to mind a grandfather who'd lived there at the time of French Indochina, others remembered an uncle or a distant cousin describing the plantations of “the wood that weeps,” the rubber tree that bled latex by the ton. Vietnamese revolutionaries had shattered the romantic image of hectares covered with lines of those tall, upright trees by lifting the curtain of mist that hid the sweat and the lowered heads of the coolies.

In the pale blue eyes of Francine, a reader I met at the Paris Salon du Livre, no architecture could compare with that of the Grall Hospital in Saigon, where her father, like a demigod, crossed the broad verandas that surrounded the patients' rooms. He'd been the chief surgeon there but never had a chance to go back before he died. In spite of everything, Vietnam was in his heart until his final breath, because it was there he had abandoned the wet nurse who'd brought Francine up for eight years and the handicapped children from the orphanage he'd built like a nest, like a challenge to fate. He had battled human tragedy by making children believe that Santa Claus existed and that he was so eager to give them their presents, he'd forgotten to exchange his velvet outfit for something more tropical.

Francine had grown up among them, an older sister to the youngest and a little sister to the bigger
ones. She helped feed the small children, patiently holding spoonfuls of rice, and others had taught her how to count on the Chinese abacus. At nap time, her mother played the piano to lull them to sleep. In return, the orphanage staff sang traditional nursery rhymes to put Francine's little brother, Luc, to sleep while their mother baked cakes to celebrate Twelfth Night or the arrival of a child. When the South lost the war against the North and tanks entered the city, Francine's family had boarded the last plane leaving Saigon, with no time to drop by the orphanage. After that, no one could come to terms with the hasty, forced departure except Luc, who was only thirteen months old at the time and did not remember that in the past he also answered to the name Lá»±c, the “strong and all-powerful” little man in his Vietnamese circles.

nhà hàng

restaurant

FRANCINE WAITED UNTIL
the Salon closed to invite me to Luc's restaurant. The address was one of those mythic places that have come through history, including the Second World War, when floors were painted black to conceal the mosaics from the eyes of Nazi soldiers. Saigon too had survived various cataclysms, human nature's specialty. I confirmed to her that the city had changed a lot, that some streets even had new names. The former rue Catinat, with its luxury boutiques, had become Đồng Khởi (Revolutionary Movement), and the Café Givral, where thin slices of cantaloupe were sold for high prices, had been demolished to make room for a modern building with coloured neon lights and multi-level parking.

However, I also reassured her: the Hôtel Caravelle had kept its name, the Notre-Dame church still stood out in the heart of downtown Saigon—motorcycles drove around it at every hour and at insane speeds—and she would recognize the many roundabouts, including the one at the Bến Thành Market. I made a basic map of the fifteen hundred stands overloaded with candied fruits, shoes, dried octopus, fresh vermicelli, rows of fabric. Just as in her memory, merchants still defend every square centimetre available in the narrow, bustling aisles, deafening but so alive. The two of us were immersed in nostalgia, so enamoured of our own memories of the place that Luc's arrival at the table made us jump.

“I've read your book,” he told me, holding my hand for too long.

bàn tay

hand

THE MISTAKE FOLLOWED FROM
that second-too-long when my fingerprints had time to become imbued with his. Could I have done otherwise? I had the hand of a child and his was a man's, with a pianist's fingers, long and enveloping, whose grip commands and reassures. If my jaw had not been locked and my arms linked, I might have quoted these lines by Rumi that had suddenly appeared in my head:

BOOK: Mãn
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