The Beauty of Humanity Movement: A Novel

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9780143120605: The Beauty of Humanity Movement: A Novel

The acclaimed author of Sweetness in the Belly journeys to Vietnam in this rich and tantalizing new novel.

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.

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About the Author:

Camilla Gibb was born in London, England, and grew up in Toronto. She has a Ph.D. in social anthropology from Oxford University for which she conducted fieldwork in Ethiopia. Her two previous novels, Mouthing the Words, winner of the City of Toronto Book Award in 2000, and The Petty Details of So-and-So's Life, have been published in eighteen countries and translated into fourteen languages, receiving rave reviews all around the world. She is one of twenty-one writers on the Orange Futures List—a list of young writers to watch, compiled by the jury of the prestigious Orange Prize. Camilla lives in Toronto, where she serves as vice president of PEN Canada and is currently writerin-residence at the University of Toronto.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

Dedication

 

A SEAM BETWEEN WORLDS

NEW DAWN

THE BEAUTY OF HUMANITY

WHOLE FRUIT

THE QUIET INSIDE

AN INVERTED WORLD

DANDY PEACOCKS

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

THE WALLS

AN EMOTIONAL VOCABULARY

BRIGHT STAR

THE LADY NEXT DOOR

THE RAINBOW THAT FELL TO EARTH

COMMUNITY SERVICE

A NOTE HANGS IN MIDAIR

VOICES OF THE DEAD

A STONE IN HIS HEART

PROVENANCE

AN OLD MAN’S DESTINY

THE AFTERLIFE

 

AUTHOR’S NOTE

Acknowledgements

BY THE SAME AUTHOR

Mouthing the Words
The Petty Details of So-and-so’s Life
Sweetness in the Belly

THE PENGUIN PRESS

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A. ● Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson

Penguin Canada Inc.) ● Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England ● Penguin Ireland, 25 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd) ● Penguin Books Australia Ltd, 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd)

● Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi - 110 017, India

Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd) ● Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

 

Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

 

 

Copyright © Camilla Gibb, 2010. All rights reserved

 

Publisher’s Note

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.

p. cm.

ISBN: 9781101476123

1. Vietnamese Americans—Vietnam—Fiction. 2. Dissenters—Vietnam—Fiction. 3. Vietnam—Fiction. 1.
Title.
PR9199.4.G53B43 2011
813’.6—dc22

2010026891

 

 

Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

 

The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrightable materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

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...

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