By Tess Lewis
Reading The Sweetest Fruits is like looking at the back of an oriental rug in which the pattern is rather more indistinct than the front but the colors much richer and more vivid.
The Sweetest Fruits, by Monique Truong. Viking, 294 pages.
There is more than one way to arrive at the truth, Alethea Foley points out in The Sweetest Fruits, Monique Truong’s prismatic reimagining of the astonishingly prolific and versatile 19th-century writer Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (1850–1904). Alethea, Hearn’s first wife, a biracial woman born in pre-Civil War Kentucky who met and married “Pat” in Ohio when interracial marriage was illegal, would have been particularly attuned to the fact that a truth can bear very different guises depending on the viewer. And the truth this novel circles is a particular slippery one: who was this chameleon of a man?
Abandoned by his Greek mother and Irish father at a young age, Hearn was forced to reinvent himself repeatedly in life. From penniless orphan dependent on the kindness of relatives, to renowned journalist of lurid stories for the sensational press, chronicler of the black underclass in Cincinnati and New Orleans, travel writer, Creole cookbook author, recorder of the Louisiana patois known as “Gombo,” compiler of ethnographic studies and collections of folklore, he ended his days as a respected university professor in Japan. Hearn was self-protective in the extreme and remained elusive even to his closest friends. In each stage of his life’s journey, Hearn sought out the margins, seeming most comfortable in the indeterminate zones between classes, cultures, and races. His final metamorphosis, from the stateless Lafcadio Hearn into Koizumi Yakumo, a Japanese citizen and connoisseur of Japanese folk tales, was accompanied by a drastic reinvention of his prose style. He pared the elaborate, overwrought Victorian style of his newspaper exposés down to the lean, condensed prose of the fairy tale. While several biographies have connected the external facts of Hearn’s life and supplemented them with passages from his lengthy and eloquent correspondence, he remains an enigma.
In The Sweetest Fruits, Truong ingeniously uses indirect lighting to illuminate several mysterious strands in this man’s life. She gives voice to three women who were closest to Hearn, each one telling the truth of him as she saw it, a truth inseparable from her own. First to speak is his mother, Rosa Cassimati, on her way back to Greece from Dublin where she had left her four-year-old son. Second is Alethea, who enchanted Hearn with stories of her family and friends in the American South and whom Hearn left after two years. Third is Koizumi Setsu, Hearn’s second wife, the daughter of an impoverished Samurai family whose marriage to Hearn was arranged by a mutual friend. This agreement, initially sealed to provide Setsu’s family with much needed financial support and Hearn with the daily care and companionship he craved, flowered into an intimate bond.
“Facts are akin to fish bones. . . . If what you want is to serve the flesh, then the bones can be discarded,” Setsu says, explaining her reordering of a few events in a letter to her dead husband. In this concoction of fact and imagination, Truong inserts excerpts from Elizabeth Bisland’s 1906 biography between each woman’s section to supply structure — but it’s these fleshy parts that are most toothsome.
Impetuous and sensual, Rosa was born to a patriarchal Greek family on the British controlled Ionian island Cerigo. Like many women of her class she was only allowed to leave her home for church. Nonetheless, she managed to strike up a liaison with the British medical officer Charles Hearn. When she became pregnant out of wedlock, she had to endure her brothers’ rage, which smelled of “vinegar and the center of bones,” and eventually rejoined Hearn in Dublin. Illiterate and pious, she was barely tolerated by her husband’s family and Charles soon lost interest in her. Rosa’s only escape was to leave the four-year-old Lafcadio behind with a childless, widowed, elderly aunt who coveted an heir. On the boat back to Greece, she dictates a letter to her young son in the hope he will one day seek her out.
Alethea was a cook in a Cincinnati boarding house when she met Hearn. He courted her with stories and drawings (she, like Rosa, was illiterate) and she soon left the boarding house kitchen to be his wife. Her vigorous, unsentimental, and practical account of their passionate but short-lived marriage is undershot with currents of bitter experience. When Hearn was fired from the Cincinnati Enquirer for the “deplorable moral habit” of cohabiting with a colored woman and drowned his sorrow in liquor, Alethea recalls using the week’s food money to pay his debts, remarking only that the first “lesson of lesser” is the hardest. But Hearn was not “a lesser,” he was only married to one and so did not have to learn another hard “lesson of lesser”–that there are no second chances–and he found work at another paper. Finally, unable to bear the strain of prejudice, Hearn left Alethea for New Orleans with no word of explanation but a few sporadic requests for help.
Hearn’s final transformation would not have been possible without the assistance and collaboration of Koizumi Setsu. She diligently helped him improve his Japanese and nourished his intellect with a vast repertoire of folk tales and ghost stories, all the while running the household and raising their four children. Yet he was less than eager to teach her English in turn, preferring to glory in the deference traditionally due to him as head of the household. Truong grants Setsu far more complexity and ambivalence than can be found in the numerous accounts of Hearn’s life. Setsu’s letter to her dead husband reveals a woman whose devotion is no less sincere for being clear-eyed. “I must learn from your example, Yakumo,” she tells him.
What was once fact—because you alone claimed it to be—can lose its lacquer, chip and blister over time. What was once opinion—or the echo of the prevailing winds—can take on the weight of conviction. What was a matter of taste can reveal a lifetime of foibles and faults. What was a term of affection can disclose a failing of character. What was love can be read as mere proximity.
The tale, indeed, lies in the telling.
Like Truong’s earlier novels, The Book of Salt and Bitter in the Mouth, The Sweetest Fruit is a meditation on the vagaries of identity, the malleability of memory, and the question of whose stories are heard and whose are silenced. It is a measure of Truong’s imaginative empathy and stylistic suppleness that she has created three vivid and distinct voices. Each account, in the end, sheds more light on the speaker herself than the subject. In reflecting on the man each of them loved deeply, they can finally express some of their deepest longings and desires, the sweetest fruits of the title. Rosa’s are the ripest figs in the tops of the trees traditionally left for the birds that symbolized the freedom she was constantly denied. For Alethea, these fruits are the “juicy berries” at the core of stories that are “brambly, full of leaves, and with branches going every which way.” And for Setsu, “children are the sweetest fruits of a grafted tree,” gifts she had almost resigned herself to doing without.
An absence remains at this novel’s core, but it is an absence that throws into relief the three powerful presences that surround it. Reading The Sweetest Fruits is like looking at the back of an oriental rug in which the pattern is rather more indistinct than the front but the colors much richer and more vivid. It seems fitting to let Alethea have the last word: “Forgive me for saying, but you can’t understand only one man’s story. Those around him have things to say too.”
Tess Lewis’s translations from French and German include works by Walter Benjamin, Peter Handke, Klaus Merz, and Christine Angot. Her translation of Maja Haderlap’s Angel of Oblivion was awarded the 2017 PEN Translation Prize. She is co-chair of the PEN America Translation Committee and an Advisory Editor for The Hudson Review.