Kim Thúy, Sheila Fischman (Trans.)
Random House Canada, 2014
Kim Thúy’s debut novel, Ru (2009, Libre Expression), won the Governor General’s Award for French-language fiction in 2010 and three significant literary prizes in France. The English edition (2012, Vintage Canada), translated by Sheila Fischman, was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2012 and the Amazon.ca First Novel Award in 2013. Six years after the French edition was first published, the story is still reverberating across the country, most recently winning the 2015 Canada Reads competition. It was, to put it lightly, a tough act to follow, but Mãn surpasses Ru on some very fundamental levels. Both stories are told in vignettes, many of which are no longer than a single paragraph. Both feature lyrical, at times haunting prose—Thúy is a true romantic, and Sheila Fischman is skilful in her rendering. But where Ru occasionally felt disjointed and lacking structure—Thúy once said in an interview with The Globe and Mail that “it has no structure”—Mãn sustains a strong sense of forward momentum and a narrow focus.
Title character Mãn, a Vietnamese orphan whose mother works as a spy for the resistance, learns from a young age “to avoid conflicts, to breathe without existing, to melt into [her] landscape.” (97) She lives “without dreams” (28) by desiring nothing, a fitting existence for a character whose name, as we learn, means “perfectly fulfilled.” Upon receiving a marriage proposal from a Vietnamese restaurant owner living in Montréal—a boat person who left Vietnam at twenty—she moves and begins working in his kitchen, where her recipes become much more than her livelihood. For Mãn, each dish is a labour of love, a tangible tie to the homeland and language that she and her customers left. In Mãn, we witness the meaning of nourishment, not only for the body, but also for the soul.
With the help of Julie, a Québécois “merchant of happiness” (67), Mãn begins to learn how to “desire the horizon.” (59) After having two children, she starts offering culinary workshops, pens a book of recipes, appears on cooking shows, and one morning, opens her eyes to “a world so perfect it made [her] dizzy.” (68) But as Mãn’s beloved Maman, who eventually comes to join her adoptive daughter’s family in Montréal, warns, “success attracts thunderbolts.” (111)
Yet, I found this story to be in celebration of desire, and in particular, earthly love. After meeting Luc on a publicity trip, Mãn leaves Paris under the spell of a new sensation: “The only trace of Luc I could bring back to Montréal was that of his hands on my eyes, which he had covered so that I wouldn’t see his tears flow silently in the airport parking lot.” (99) Calling into question the nature of love, the affair is a sharp contrast to the relationship Mãn has with her husband, where, “It was enough for him to be happy for all of us to be.” (96)
Mãn is a story of fulfillment. Does fulfillment exist in the absence of desires or the attainment of them? The very name Mãn reflects one of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, namely that desire is the source of human suffering. As Thúy related in an interview with the CBC’s All in a Weekend, the name is often adopted by monks seeking to rid themselves of desires on the path to enlightenment.
A rare and beautiful story, Mãn is proof that Ru was no fluke. Though it is a slim volume that can be read from cover-to-cover in a single sitting, its reach is beyond that of most novels.
Carly Rosalie Vandergriendt is a Montreal-based writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Her work has appeared in Riddle Fence, Verge Magazine, and Arbitrage.Visit her at carlyrosalie.com.