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The Beauty of Humanity Movement: A review

Posted on 05 April 2012 by admin

Angelique Manchanda-Peres

Oakville

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 child…so 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.

To sum up, the book plunges the reader into the borderlands between opposing forces: youth and age, exclusion and privilege, war and peace.

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