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When tradition and modernity knock heads

Dumb Luck, A Novel, Vu Trong Phung , Translated from the Vietnamese by Peter Zinoman and Nguyen Nguyet Cam, University of Michigan Press: 190 pp., $19.95

January 12, 2003|Sheridan Prasso | Sheridan Prasso is a senior news editor at Business Week and a longtime Asia specialist.

The Western world knows little of the fine tradition of Vietnamese literature, although a few works have made their way abroad in recent years since Vietnam's doi moi reforms and the encouraging of fuller cultural expression. The best-known, Bao Ninh's "The Sorrow of War," filled us with empathy and horror at the Vietnamese soldier's view of what is known, in fitting parallel, as "the American War." The book caused us to realize just how similar our experiences of that conflict really were.

There have also been memoirs by writers born in Vietnam who later immigrated to the United States, such as "Catfish and Mandala" by Andrew X. Pham and "The Sacred Willow" by Duong Van Mai Elliott -- both attempt to introduce Americans to the complexity of the Vietnamese experience.

But what of Vietnam's Faulkners and Dostoevskys and Voltaires, the classicist purveyors of Vietnam's literary soul? In fact, Vietnam experienced a literary explosion between 1923 and 1944 that prompted the publication of more than 10,000 Vietnamese titles and the creation of more than 450 periodicals, the perhaps inevitable result of France's introduction of romanized Vietnamese script at the end of the 19th century. (It is all the more remarkable considering Hanoi's population during those years was just 150,000.) Much of the writing was the extraordinary expression of a colonized people seeking a voice and clamoring for modernization. Virtually all of it was later banned under the communist government.

Now, for the first time, a novel by Vu Trong Phung, a brilliant and prolific satirist who has been compared to Balzac and lauded as arguably the greatest Vietnamese writer of this rich literary period, has been published in English. Banned by the North Vietnamese authorities until 1986, his works later became required reading in schools and are now as integral to Vietnam's educational system as "The Catcher in the Rye" or "The Grapes of Wrath" are to our own.

Before dying in 1939 of the combined effects of tuberculosis and opium addiction one week shy of his 27th birthday, Phung had written eight novels, seven plays, several dozen short stories, five book-length works of nonfiction reportage, and hundreds of reviews, essays and articles. His best-known work, "Dumb Luck," which first appeared in serialized form in a Hanoi newspaper in 1936, has now been translated into English by a husband and wife team of academics from UC Berkeley, Peter Zinoman and Nguyen Nguyet Cam.

A lively and engaging novel that is pure social critique, "Dumb Luck" centers around a street-smart urban trickster named Red-Haired Xuan. He is a clever Candide who, far from dodging misfortune after misfortune, bumbles through life's amusing adventures to find that, in fact, every seeming adversity does indeed result in the best of all possible worlds -- for him, at least, while everyone else is none the wiser. The setting is Vietnam in the 1930s, when the country was undergoing enormous social change. The pressures for modernization, for Vietnam's elite to adopt French language, fashion and cultural mores were enormous.

And it is this clash between tradition and modernity that Phung brings to light with amusingly biting satire: the dress shop tailor who creates plunging necklines and short skirts for his sophisticated Vietnamese clientele as part of his dedication to the "Europeanization" movement, yet forbids his wife to wear anything but the traditional ao dai tunic and white slacks; the old grandfather who repeatedly shouts, "I know! I know, what a pain! ... Shut up already!!!" whenever confronted with evidence of how the world is changing; the police who, forced to collect a quota of fines, turn to fining each other; the plump widow who was so faithful to her two consecutive, senior bureaucrat husbands that she "sexed" them both to death.

Xuan, of course, gets the better of everyone. Invited by a beautiful woman to court her by reciting traditional Vietnamese poetry, the uneducated Xuan (who previously stood on street corners hawking medicinals to cure sexually transmitted diseases) merely adapts his snake-oil recitations and is heralded as a learned man.

Greeted at the tennis club in Hanoi by snooty Vietnamese intellectuals who address him in French, Xuan (who does not speak the foreign language) purses his lips in disgust and retorts, "Isn't our language good enough for you?" "Yes of course, please forgive me," the intellectual, forced to acknowledge his disrespect for his mother tongue, replies sheepishly.

A rich family begs Xuan to marry their beautiful daughter, and, caught up in a moment of self-reflection -- could someone of his modest background be suitable? -- he declines. The family, thinking he must be too good for their daughter, begs even harder. Again, it is the uneducated Xuan who makes a mockery of "sophisticated" Vietnam.

Phung's translators offer a 24-page introduction of meticulously footnoted narrative analysis that painstakingly places the work in context, but it is best read and fully appreciated after reading Phung's fine, funny and still relevant work.

After all, modern-day Vietnam, where police and privileged classes are still figures of fun, gives rise to the same tension between tradition and modernity. That makes Phung an important Vietnamese voice, and one well worth reading today.

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