Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb

Category: Fiction
Format: Hardcover, 304 pages
Publisher: Doubleday Canada
ISBN: 978-0-385-66322-9 (0-385-66322-6)

Pub Date: August 17, 2010
Price: $32.95

The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb takes its fictional name from an actual group of idealistic communist writers and artists in Hanoi. In the early 1950s, this group wrote and spoke out against the excesses of Ho Chi Minh's policies, in particular, the Land Reform Act in which hundreds of thousands of people (peasants mostly) accused of being landlords were executed or tortured and starved in prison.

Because they were vocal in their denouncement of this "land reform," and also because they refused to act as a mouth-speaker for government propaganda, the artists and writers of the Beauty of Humanity Movement suffered a fate similar to the unfortunate peasantry. Sent to so-called re-education camps, they were tortured, indoctrinated, killed or maimed.  Punishments meted out  were cruel and usually specific to the occupation of the prisoner. Artists lost their hands, poets their tongues.

 The pivotal character in this novel is Old Man Hung, who formerly owned a restaurant famous for its pho and frequented by some of the country’s leading poets and visual artists (this while the French were in power). After angering the newly-formed Communist regime (the French were defeated in the early '50's), who withheld a restaurant license from him he was forced to operate outside of the law, selling pho illegally from a cart he pushed around the city.  He'd have to find a new spot almost every other day and yet the crowds would throng his stall, bringing their own bowls for a taste of his magnificent Pho. Among his customers were Binh and Tu, the son and grandson of his best friend, Dao, a poet and member of the artist group the Beauty of Humanity Movement who was killed by the Communists on his way to a re-education camp.

Pho  may just be a humble soup made from beef broth, but it is the blood that flows in the veins of the streets of Vietnam.  Infact, Old Man Hung  says that the history of Vietnam can be found in a bowl of  Pho bac (the pho that Hanoi is famous for).  The rice noodles it contains is symbolic of the thousand years of Chinese occupations and the beef is symbolic of the French occupation that came later (the taste for beef was introduced by the French who turned  the people's cows away from ploughs and into 'bifteck" and pot-au-feu.) The clever Vietnamese took the best the occupiers had to offer and made something uniquely Vietnamese from it.

One day a Vietnamese-American curator, Maggie, visits Old Man Hung at one of his mobile stands.  Maggie was five years old when she was rescued by the Americans at Saigon airport (after the fall of Saigon) . She wants to  learn more about her artist father, who also disappeared during the war. She asks Hung if he can help her (after all when Hung had his Pho shop in the '50's it was the meeting place for a lot of radical artists and writers) .  Hung's memories are the perfect vehicle to take the reader through Vietnam's past - from the intellectual age of the 1930's when Hung was sent to the city to work in his uncle's pho shop (he was an unwanted child...the ninth unwanted his parents didn't even give him a name, calling him simply, Nine),  through to French colonization, Japanese occupation and, of course, the Vietnam War.

While Hung provides a look back into Vietnam’s past, a 22-year-old tour guide named Tu offers readers a glimpse into the country’s current era of economic freedom and its entrepreneurial youth, so many of which were born after the war, so it's not a direct memory in their lifetimes. Tu' specializes in offering guilt-ridden American veterans "war tours" through his city, but he soon starts to realize their version of his country's history is deeply flawed.  There is an encounter with Tu' and an American Vet at a Buddhist temple which is especially poignant. 

Camilla Gibb's novels fall in the sub-genre of literary fiction that I like to call Anthropological fiction (her previous novel was "Sweetness in the Belly" which was set in Ethiopia.).  These are novels set in different countries  and whose readers relish learning about foreign cultures (their history, diet, traditions, rituals and so on) in a fictional setting.   Reading novels like these makes one realize how different and yet how similar we all are.  No matter where the characters come from or are based, there are certain human traits that are universally recognizable and this is why these books resonate with us so much.

Gibb's writing is very clear, clean and precise. In this novel she explores both,present-day Vietnam and the forces that shaped it. Many novels on Vietnam focus mostly on the war and the aftermath but in doing so one neglects the vibrant, bustling Vietnam of today. I think Gibb's novel gives the reader a very balanced and overall view of the country and I appreciate that.

What was interesting to me was Maggie's reception in Vietnam.  The Vietnamese are very hostile to foreign-returned Vietnamese "Viet-Kieu", and she was greeted suspiciously wherever she went.  Her morals and intentions were questioned and I am sure her loyalty was too. I have never found this in India...I come and go as I please and yet my countrymen will always treat me like one of them.  However, I have a Korean friend who tells me such a thing is very common in Korea too.

To sum up, the book plunges the reader into the borderlands between opposing forces: youth and age, exclusion and privilege, war and peace. Hanoi's 1000th anniversary is to be celebrated from October 1 to 10, this book would be a perfect celebration of it.


island sweet said...

it's next on my list!

Lotus Reads said...

How lovely to see someone from New Foundland here...thought very much of all of you when Igor passed by!

Anonymous said...

You made me want to read this right away :) I don't think I have read enough about it, but communist China is such an interesting subject. And I love the idea of anthropological fiction, I hadn't heard of it before, but it sounds like a good fit for me.

Lotus Reads said...

Hello Irisonbooks!!! This is based in Vietnam actually, so it might be an even rarer read than a story set in Communist China. Hope you enjoy and thanks so much for the visit!

Birdy said...

Wow Lotus, this is a super review! I loved this bit - "the book plunges the reader into the borderlands between opposing forces: youth and age, exclusion and privilege, war and peace." I am putting this on my TBR list pronto. If you want to read more Vietnamese books I recommend "Last Night I Dreamed of Peace" by Dang Thuy Tram. I am sure you will like it :)

Leela Soma said...

Wonderful review. You open my eyes to cultures that one rarely hears about. The 'anthropological novel' is a unique and apt term that you've chosen Angie. The story in the 'pho' of the Chinese rice noodles and the French beef indicating a population colonised, subjucated and surviving by adapting their lives is moving. 'Hung' as child number nine and an outcaste and his food barrow kind of reminds one of roadside food 'barrows' in India too.Your review always has a bit of you when you enjoy the book, the fact that you feel so welcome back in India in contrast to Maggie was a nice touch. Thanks for showing a richer vein of Vietnam's history that I was only vaguely aware of from newspapers.Brill review.

Sanjay said...

As always Lotus a wonderful review. And as Leela so aptly pointed out you always have you in the review, the way the books speaks to you. That is truly refreshing and different from other reviews I read and that is why your blog truly shines for me!!!
Thank you for sharing this.
I loved the descriptions of the Pho. A rather different metaphor for food and how it represents a nations past.
I wonder what food you think would best describe India's past? :-)
Forgive some of my Qs..
Was Maggie ethnically Vietnamese or Vietnamese - American purely due to her being an immigrant?
Did the guide for Americans feel he was exploiting a guilt that some American vets feel for the war?
What stood out the most for you in this book, for if one were to compare China and Vietnam for they are similar in many ways in nations in the throes of seminal change?
Also why does the guide think that some of the history of Vietnam esp the war is flawed?
My take always was that while realpolitik dictated the war, it was a disaster and unjust as well.
Also is there any allusion to trying to learn from China? Fir change can be tumultuous when mismananged?
Sorry about all the Qs and thank you for a wonderful review Lotus!!

Lotus Reads said...

Hello Birdy! Thank you for the wonderful has gone on my wishlist. I've always been fascinated with that side of the world (Indochine) as it was known in the old days. Also love movies set in those countries..Vietnam/Cambodia. I don't know if you are a movie buff but recently I saw a really lovely Vietnamese movie titled "The White Silk Dress"....beautiful!

Lotus Reads said...

Hello Leela! As always you are so generous with your praise. I really am glad you liked the review. I had a hard time planning what to write because the story is rather detailed and with many layers. The challenge, as always, is to talk about the themes, the author's style and how the book impacted me without giving too much away...sometimes I succeed at that and sometimes I don't! lol Really value your feedback, thanks so much!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi ya Sanj! You're another praise me too much...I'm not sure I really deserve the accolades. Anyway, you pose such an interesting question: what food or drink runs like blood through every Indian's veins? I'm tempted to say "chai"...wouldn't you? I'd like to say rice, but then people up north eat more wheat than rice, but everyone drinks chai, don't they?

Maggie was ethnically Vietnamese, she was one of the kids rescued by American soldiers during the fall of Saigon and brought to America (with her mother) so she wasn't adopted into an American family or anything like that.

Yes, you could say China and Vietnam are alike in that they are communist countries that are now embracing capitalism, but in history,food and ethnicity, Vietnam and Cambodia are more alike. ANd no, there were no allusions to China in any which way.

The guide's reasoning is rather complicated but very interesting. I should save that for if and when you read the book. Don't want to give too much away although I really appreciate you asking!


Sanjay said...

Aww Lotus, praise where praise is due especially as you are so deserving of it too! I have been an avid reader and fan for more than 3 years now. I have never been disappointed by any review you wrote. You call it like it is!
You make a great pick with "Chai", very perceptive, for it is likely the one thing that reaches across the amazing diversity that is India.
Maggie was ethnically Vietnamese and yet she encountered much discrimination. I shudder to think what the kids of Vietnamese mothers and American fathers must have encountered no?
Lotus, great point about the similarity of Vietnam and Cambodia, and that begs the Q, are they both embracing economic freedoms in a similar fashion? You have been to Cambodia so you may have a better insight to offer as well.
Hmm..@ the guides reasoning. Makes me want to read the book!
And hugs back my friend!
I find myself always learning something new when I visit your wonderful blog, thank you!!!

Birdy said...

Lotus, I absolutely LOVE movies! But I am a bit choosy, preferring to go in for offbeat ones whether in Hindi or English or other Indian languages. I love foreign language movies too. Not to say I don't watch mainstream movies, but there is a limit to the ones I can digest, especially when it comes to some Bollywood movies :D But bottom line - language is no barrier when it comes to movies and books! I will look up that movie you mentioned :)

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Birdy! Sorry to be getting back so late to you! I hear ya about mainstream movies, it would have to be something very special to get me interested in them. Like you, I also prefer a good art film over a blockbuster, any day!