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 and the taste for beef the Vietnamese acquired under the French, who turned their cows away from ploughs and into bifteck and pot-au-feu. The name of their national soup is pronounced like this French word for fire, as Hung’s Uncle Chien explained to him long ago.
“We’re 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.”
—from The Beauty of Humanity Movement (p 5) by Camilla Gibb
Old Man Hu’ng has been making and selling pho to hungry devotees for nearly 70 years, continually adapting his recipe and the location of his food cart to accommodate the terrible demands of poverty, war and oppression that have plagued Hanoi throughout his long life. Cherished least of all his mother’s ten children thanks to an inauspicious facial birthmark, Hu’ng was sent in 1933 to apprentice at his Uncle Chien’s restaurant where he achieved mastery over broth and noodles. Inheriting the business from his uncle, Hu’ng’s sublime cookery and willingness to barter made him a favourite in the 1950s with the Beauty of Humanity Movement, a group of artists and intellectuals who dared question Communist rule, at great peril.
Heading the Movement was Dao, a poet whose young son Binh would shadow Hu’ng at the restaurant, hungry not for noodles but for the attention that his own revolutionary father was too distracted to provide. When Dao was inevitably arrested, Binh’s mother whisked the boy into hiding, blinding him in one eye to avoid conscription. Hu’ng was forced to close his restaurant, but not knowing any other life’s work, he persisted in making and selling pho by pushing a food cart through the city, even when forced to make his noodles with scavenged pond weeds.
Fifty years later, Binh is a middle-class Hanoi carpenter who once again consumes daily bowls of Hu’ng’s pho, following the old man to whatever location he has moved to in order to evade police beatings. Binh tries valiantly to protect Hu’ng, the gentle old man who is as close to a father as he has ever known. By extension Hu’ng is also a grandfather to Binh’s son Tu’, a somewhat aimless Nike-shod tour guide who wears his clothes and hair in modern fashion, and yet whose spirited idealism reminds Hu’ng of his revolutionist grandfather.
Then one day Hu’ng’s improvised pho stand is visited by a beautiful stranger, Maggie, a foreign-raised Vietnamese art curator who was spirited out of Hanoi as a child during the fall of Saigon. Her artist father disappeared in those tumultuous times, and Maggie has returned to the country of her birth to learn his fate. Hearing of Hu’ng’s reputation, she has come to plead for answers—did he know her father? Hu’ng’s memory is failing, but he dearly wants to help this young woman, whose beauty sends him back to a time long ago, when he loved a girl whose betrayal he has never forgiven. . .
Steeped in rich and highly evocative language, Camilla Gibb’s The Beauty of Humanity Movement is a nuanced and gentle paean for Vietnam, a poignant testament to the strength and resiliency of love and art in overcoming terrible hardship.
Camilla Gibb is the author of four novels—Mouthing the Words, The Petty Details of So-and-so's Life, Sweetness in the Belly and The Beauty of Humanity Movement—as well as numerous short stories, articles and reviews.
She was the winner of the Trillium Book Award in 2006, a Scotiabank Giller Prize short list nominee in 2005, winner of the City of Toronto Book Award in 2000 and the recipient of the CBC Canadian Literary Award for short fiction in 2001. Her books have been published in 18 countries and translated into 14 languages and she was named by the jury of the prestigious Orange Prize as one of 21 writers to watch in the new century.
Gibb was born in London, England, and grew up in Toronto. She has a B.A. in anthropology and Middle Eastern studies from the University of Toronto, completed her Ph.D. in social anthropology at Oxford University in 1997, and spent two years at the University of Toronto as a post-doctoral research fellow before becoming a full-time writer.
Gibb has been writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto and the University of Alberta. She is currently an adjunct faculty member of the graduate creative writing program at the University of Guelph and the Barker Fairley Distinguished Visitor in Canadian Studies at the University of Toronto.
“Gibb’s fictional portrait of contemporary Vietnam should be essential reading for anyone mulling a visit to Hanoi, whose profusion of motorbike traffic and culinary aromas issues from these pages with graphic verisimilitude.”
— The New York Times Book Review
"A bittersweet story of old lost love.... A debunker of stereotypes and a seeker of the big picture, [Gibb] isn’t satisfied with merely creating convincing characters and a bold plot. She educates and enlightens the reader whose grasp of Vietnam’s history and culture may be based on little more than the vague recall of old headlines."
— The Gazette (Montreal)
"[Gibb’s] latest work slips like silk into the psyche of contemporary Hanoi.... Gibb’s largely unadorned writing is rather like Hung’s pho, delicious for its austerity and complexities."
"Gibb ties the strands of narrative together in the same way that Hung makes his pho – with care, with gentleness and with reality. She employs all the senses to create a vivid aesthetic tapestry of the concrete, and then infuses it with the abstractions of family and ambition and respect for elders."
— The Globe and Mail
"Simply heartwarming.... Writing with grace and understanding, [Gibb] tells of years of oppression, poverty, artistic resistance, and finally, survival.... The book left me astonished."
— The Sun Times (Owen Sound)
"Gibb drapes her story over good strong bones—characters that span several generations, the nobility of the artists in contrast to the war and its political players. But the true beauty of the novel radiates from the details—the smell of the soup, the feeling of the early-morning streets, the sense of community in poverty and the community woven by memories."
— Los Angeles Times
“Gibb has created a fascinating portrait of modern Vietnam.... The collision between the personal and political, the overlapping of the characters’ stories and the tracking of their past and present lives reveal the human connections that unite us all.”
— The Independent (UK)
“Gibb has made a loving, wise, tender, dreamy and insightful work of fiction.”
—National Public Radio
“An intensive course in Vietnamese history, Gibb’s poised and thoughtful novel does not flinch from horror but is also open to the beauty of this scarred country.”
—The Guardian (UK)