THE BOOK: At the beginning of the unnamed narrator’s new life, “Crazy Bastard” had his passport stamped with the date he and Bon arrived in Paris: 18/7/81. The name on his passport was Vo Danh, meaning “nameless” in Vietnamese, but his associates in France referred to him as Crazy Bastard. A self-described man of two minds and two faces, he could argue both sides of a situation. This perspective served him well in his past life in America as a spy secretly working against blood brother Bon’s anti-communist cause. Bon’s special ability was killing communists. CB knew that if Bon discovered his true sympathies, Bon would have to kill him, on principle.
In Paris, CB made his living by selling hashish to his aunt’s (with whom he was staying) intellectual friends, eventually branching out into the larger community as he learned his way around the city. He met many colorful characters including Le Cao Boi, The Seven Dwarves, Creme Brûlée, The Boss, the Ronan, and others. I loved the way CB assigned adjectival honorifics to his associates like “the endangered French capitalist;” “the expressionist mistress;” “the eschatological muscle;” and “the very chic, very tanned doctor. ” There is a lot of irreverent humor here, in spite of the darkness of the plot. For example, at one point, while CB is kneeling, he was reminded of his first communion when he was 7, receivng the host from his priest father, followed by a sip of the ceremonial wine. Even though he had seen the choirboy wipe the lip of the cup with a cloth, he still trembed at the thought of all the mouths that had touched that cup. “This blood of Christ was a sweet syrup on a poor tongue unused to sweets, and it would lead me not toward greater devotion to God but rather, eventually, toward debauchery. If I love liquor too much, I blame God, or at least his minions.”
What struck me reading this book, is the history of wasted potential of human beings -the ones oppressed and metaphorically shackled by a ruling class that imprisoned them in poverty, and deprived the world of their contributions to society. The number of voiceless poets, singers, orators; the number of sculptors, painters, architects; the number of playwrights, composers, actors and actresses who never got the opportunity for the world to experience the products of their creativity, is mind boggling. Fortunately this voice, the voice of Viet Thanh Nguyen, was able to burst the shackles that could have silenced him so that we could have his story. I was in awe of his writing, his wit, his humor, and his politics as expressed in The Connected. Now I must read The Sympathizer!
THE BEAUTY: Once CB established himself and began to make some money from his hashish operation, “I used my profits to buy an excellent pair of brown leather oxfords from Bruno Magli, recommended to me by BFD. They look good and you can walk or stand all day in them, he said… You can always judge a man by his shoes.”
THE FOOD: CB had little regard for BFD, but he was his aunt’s friend, so in order to avoid talking to each other on their way to the brothel, “Heaven,” they listened to Johnny Hallyday who CB referred to as the musical equivalent of Ricard Pastis, an acquired taste, at best. Similar to other anise-based aperitifs, like Greek ouzo, at age 23, Paul Ricard developed his own mix, blending flavors of Marseilles into Ricard Pastis, the “pastis of Marseilles.” It is served cold, adding 5 parts of chilled water to 1 part pastis, and then topped with 4 ice cubes. I made an olive and ham loaf representative of the area to accompany our drink.
EASY HAM AND OLIVE CAKE RECIPE
- 200g of all-purpose flour
- 1 package of dried yeast
- 3 large eggs
- pinch of salt
- ground pepper
- 1 heaped T of dijon mustard
- 5 T olive oil
- 7 T milk
- ⅔ C grated Gruyère cheese
- ¾ C of ham
- ⅔ C of sliced green olives
- Butter for greasing
Pre-heat oven to 390°F. Grease a standard size loaf pan.
In a dry frying pan, fry the diced ham for 2 minutes until golden. Set aside.
In a mixing bowl add the flour, yeast, eggs, salt, pepper, and oil. Mix well then add the milk, grated cheese, sliced and drained olives, mustard and the ham. Mix well.
Pour into the loaf pan and place in the oven for 45 minutes. If the cake is browning too quickly, place tin foil on top. Take it out of the oven and leave to cool in the tin.