peteg's blog - noise - books - 2011 03 16 VuTrongPhung DumbLuck

Vũ Trọng Phụng: Dumb Luck (Số Đỏ)

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Translated by Nguyễn Nguyệt Cầm and Peter Zinoman, University of California, Berkeley, 2002.

I've had this one on the list for ages now as a result of reading Greg Lockhart's translation of one of Vũ Trọng Phụng's short stories. Loan tells me it's now literature, something to torture the school kids with, after being banned for an extensive period due to it being deemed politically incorrect by the Communist regime.

This satire is Set in Hà Nội in the 1930s during a period of cultural and political renaissance fired by a changing attitude towards colonies by a new left-wing French regime, and a literary vacuum due to the young people being trained in quốc ngữ (the modern Vietnamese script) and not the classical Chinese ideograms. Zinoman explains all this at length in his introduction, which is better read as an afterword. This form of social commentary seems passé, at least in extended form; perhaps it is now unkind to attack entire classes of people, whereas the individual muppet is fair game. (I'm thinking of John Clarke's transition from Fred Dagg to the 7:56 Report here, so this might just be an antipodean perspective.)

The aspirations of pretty much everyone get a serve here, except the nascent indigenous political movements that climaxed in the founding of of a post-colonial nation state in 1945 (or 1954 if you prefer). Xuân is riding the meteor upwards, cutting a swathe through the top-end of society, ably exemplifying the Peter principle. The middle-upper mercantile classes are busy directing the tastes of the cashed up, and sexual and religious mores are under pressure to Europeanise. This is not to say that traditions are sacrosanct here, with a dog-eating Buddhist Monk bargaining like a fishmonger's wife, and the hai lúa from the countryside being thoroughly routed. There is no sympathy for the Mandarin system under the emperor either, as it has been thoroughly compromised by its dealings with the colonial authorities.

I have to wonder how much got lost in translation, as so much comes across well. "Horned husbands" was new to me but is apparently quite common. "Số Đỏ" literally translates as "red number" or "red destiny", which accounts for Xuân's hair colour as well as the cultural confusion of numerology and fate. Zinoman and wife keep their translation lively, though it is a little too American in places.

The closest Western referent is probably Candide, although here the central character is far from oblivious and under no delusion that this is the best of all possible worlds. Perhaps it was culturally impossible for there to be a Leibniz in the Confucian tradition.

I'm doubly keen to read his The Industry of Marrying Europeans now, and the recently-translated Luc Xi: Prostitution and Venereal Disease in Colonial Hanoi.