The Pizza: Party Size Pepperoni from Magic Oven
The Drink: Boogie Monster IPA from Bellwoods Brewery
The Book: “The Beauty of Humanity Movement” by Camilla Gibb
What value does art have in a political revolution? And what, precisely, is art anyway?
Camilla Gibb’s The Beauty of Humanity Movement delves into the political, and artistic, and artisanal history of Vietnam, from the 1950’s to the present day.
We first meet Hung, who runs Hanoi’s best pho cart, as a lonely elderly man. Hung is old Vietnam, before the civil war and what is colloquially known as the “American War”. He speaks little, works hard, and keeps his head down. His only companions are his customers, who rush to his always-changing location every morning for his artful pho creations.
One of those customers is Tu, a twenty-something tour guide. He is college-educated, speaks English, listens to American music, and wears Nike sneakers. He yearns for more than his current job, but knows it is a good way to be introduced to the wonders of North American culture. His friend and business partner, Phuong, is an aspiring rapper, and looking to gain fame on Vietnam Idol. They are the modern-day, capitalist Vietnam
Into their world steps Maggie, the Vietnamese-American from Minnesota. She has returned to Hanoi, the city from which she and her mother escaped at the start of the Vietnam War, in search of answers about her estranged father. She lives with feet in both worlds, never truly feeling at home in either, the lament of the second-generation emigrant (and immigrant).
Gibb weaves the stories of these seemingly disparate individuals into a hopeful, idealistic tale of unity, survival, and the power of art. They all have their skills, abilities, and flaws. Hung is the masterful pho maker, at times creating the favoured broth out of nothing more than leaves and water. Tu and Phoung are chameleons, able to learn and employ new English vocabulary seamlessly into their tours, and to take patrons exactly where they want to be taken; showing them what they want to see, and hiding what they don’t. Maggie is business-minded, helping run one of Hanoi’s largest tourist hotels. She is single, but not in the depressed, best-friend-in-a-romantic-comedy kind of way. She is independent, but looking for a familial connection.
Instead of clashing between old and new Vietnam, Gibb seeks to bring the two together to give the reader a deeper understanding of a country known mostly in wartime photography, or quaint water-colour paintings of fishermen in small boats. Her characters act, and react, naturally to the various surprises they encounter. They learn from each other, add to each other’s lives. Through flashbacks, we learn about Hung’s former lover, a lovely neighbor girl, and Maggie’s father, the poet intellectual who staunchly refused to sell out to the political regime. The book’s title refers to the collection of artists who referred to themselves as “The Beauty of Humanity Movement”.
Despite a somewhat tidy ending, The Beauty of Humanity Movement is a very worthwhile read that can definitely shed light on a fascinating, beautiful, and complex country, and make the reader re-consider the very definition, meaning and value of art itself.
For the next book club meeting in late May, we’ll be reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.
Chris Dagonas is a Toronto-based teacher and writer who also writes for Same Page Team, a sports and pop culture website with a Toronto focus.