Book Shelf: The Beauty of Humanity Movement

Book Shelf: The Beauty of Humanity Movement

London-born Canadian social anthropologist Camilla Gibb's The Beauty of Humanity Movement brilliantly captures, quite ironically, the very ugliness of humanity, keenly articulating the experiences of those innocent victims caught up in the crossfire of ideology, politics and power, while pointing to the human capacity for survival and hope despite the odds.

The omniscient author, Gibb takes us on a journey that alternately captures the inner lives and personal histories of three central characters as they intersect: 'Old Man Hung', who makes the best pho in Hanoi and sells his brew off the back of a cart; Maggie, an American art curator of Vietnamese descent in her thirties; and Tu, a 22-year-old travel guide who partakes in Hung's pho for breakfast.

Significantly, we are told, "The history of Vietnam lies in this bowl, for it is in Hanoi, the Vietnamese heart, that pho was born, a combination of the rice noodles that predominated after a thousand years of Chinese occupation, the taste for beef the Vietnamese acquired after the French...".

Maggie travels to Vietnam on a quest to know more of her father, an artist who worked on the same dissident literary journal edited by Tu's grandfather, Dao, while Hung is the key to linking their identities over a humble bowl of pho, the steam, sustenance and continuity imbuing Gibb's novel with a sensory motif one can smell and feel and taste.

We are taken back to 1956, two years after Vietnam's independence. Here we find Dao and his group of intellectuals and artists communing and debating the shortcomings of communism inside a pho shop, owned by Hung's uncle. The young Hung has been ostracised by his family and is sent to live with his Uncle Chien in the city where the simple peasant boy has an intellectual awakening under the mentorship of the charismatic Dao.

After liberation, we are told, "the Party issued a series of proclamations calling upon artists and intellectuals – people literate and educated in ideology – to lead the masses toward awareness of their enlightenment and teach and disseminate with principles of Lenin and Marx."

But Dao, believer in freedom of artistic expression and critical discussion, cannot bring himself to tow the Party line, much more so when his deformed son, maimed at birth, is deemed ill-fit to further the work of the communist revolution. His literary magazine, with its essays, poetry, stories and illustrations, only made it to six issues before the Party stepped in and Dao, like his dissident comrades, disappears. "They refused to produce the socialist realism the Party demanded of them. This was their crime."

As a tour guide, and grandson of Dao, Tu is critical of western culture ("a world without morals and dignity") while being fluent in its history and language and wearing Nikes. Born just before the government's economic reforms of 1986, which opened Vietnam up to the world, he rails against the foreigners who he ushers to all the tourist spots for their belief that "backwardness is romantic", their "gross distortions of Vietnamese life" based on films and their fleeting wishes to help make amends for the past. This is not the Vietnam he knows, the one where English has been the second language in schools.

Tu feels Hung has been more of a grandfather to him than Dao, the legendary, bold and idealistic poet, though Tu harbours his grandfather's romanticism for his country – where now people are more likely to kill themselves because of debt or drug addiction or a broken heart than for reasons of principle – and wants his idle life to really mean something. But his generational angst is eased by Hung, who assures him that while his grandfather was inspiring, he was not a faultless man; his idealistic vision put his family in a perilous position, though his neglect was not personal. 

Hung's history is one of sheer human survival. After his shop is shut down by the Party for harbouring Dao and his crew, he finds himself relocated to a shantytown where the people are subsisting on rations of rice and maggots. But his inner life, thanks to Dao, his idol, keeps him awake, sharing his education and his collection of newspaper clippings and journals with a beautiful young girl named Lan who shares a similar fate; her former life one of croissants and chocolate before communism stepped in and displaced her from her rightful path. Love, art and pho keep them alive, though Lan breaks his heart.

Fast forward to the present time and Maggie is dislocated; feeling neither at home in Vietnam nor at home in America. She had migrated to America in 1975 with her mother, following the 1972 Christmas bombing that left all of Hanoi burning. Even now, she says, she cannot believe the country could have truly emerged from that darkness; "not even Bill Clinton lifting the trade embargo in 1994 could convince her."

Working as a curator, the profession that takes the work of artists and puts the pieces together to tell a complete story, Maggie's character gives this same organisational impetus to the novel. With Maggie seeking knowledge of her father, who was taken captive and ultimately killed by the communists, she gives Hung the permission to reflect on and reconcile the past while giving Tu the permission to contemplate his future against a backdrop of contemporary art while exploring his family's incredible legacy, one, we find out, that is based on true historical facts, albeit fictionalised by Gibb for the novel's purpose.

While sensitive types might squirm over passages devoted to Tu's first sexual encounter, Tu himself finds great discomfort in the presence of Vietnam's art galleries, where the vagaries of existence and a debased Vietnamese society come to life. This book is a rich and rewarding read, a valuable lesson in Vietnamese history and, of course, humanity.

The Beauty of Humanity Movement, published by Atlantic/Allen&Unwin, $27.99, is out now.

Girl With a Satchel