The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb

cover image

Atlantic, 2011. ISBN 9780857891716.
Old man Hung, a Vietnamese pho maker is the centre of this complex tale from which inter-generational stories of artistic martyrdom, romance, survival and family drama radiate. Pho, (what Westerners would consider a beef broth), is to Hung's loyal customers a work of art having deep cultural significance. As a boy, Hung was sent from a country village to Hanoi in the 1930s to work with his uncle and the nation's torment at the hands of foreign powers is conveyed to the reader through his ruminations.
French Colonialism, Japanese invasion, post-war portioning, hostilities between the North and South, intervention by China, Russia and America all contribute elements to this evolutionary tale which might have been irretrievably bleak. Somehow, the irrepressible spirit of Hung, who symbolises the tenacity and stoicism of his people carries the reader through a mire of appalling suffering, Buddhist teaching, familial devotion, courage and political philosophy are the armour which protects the characters against oppression, cruelty and corruption.
Depiction of mindlessly destructive agrarian reforms which caused wholesale starvation and political machinations which were little more than bloodthirsty purges are unfortunately historically accurate and mirror the Chinese and Russian experience of extreme Socialism. This is not a wholly bleak story however. The optimism shown by the characters in the more benign political climate of Doi Moi (where trade and private ownership is allowed) is captivating and provides hope.
The presence of an American born Vietnamese woman who deals in art and who hopes to understand the fate of her politically defiant father brings about interaction with locals who are endearing for their respect, decency and wonderful humour.
The book is more than a lesson in political history. This is a deeply spiritual story, yet the reader also comes to understand the characters' celebration of simple pleasures. This is particularly evident in the constant references to food, made more noticeable by the suffering caused by starvation in earlier times.
Rob Welsh