Book Review: Dumb Luck by Vũ Trọng Phụng
Written by Katie Sanghera
Having lived in Hanoi for four months now, I’ve eaten Vietnamese food everyday, learnt to ride a motorbike, grappled with pronouncing some impossible sounding words and figured it was time to get lost in some Vietnamese literature too – and what better place to start than with a deeply controversial novel that was banned in Vietnam until 1986?
First published in 1936, Vũ Trọng Phụng’s Dumb Luck is a scalding satire of the country’s late-colonial obsession with Europeanization and social reform. The novel is a fascinating window into Hanoi and the changes sweeping Vietnamese society in the 30s, but in order to fully soak up its social and political discourse, I would recommend reading Peter Zinoman’s introduction prior to the novel. This is a remarkably well-researched essay that provides contextual information about Vũ Trọng Phụng and Vietnamese modernism; it can be a little gruelling at times however is necessary in order to understand the novel’s tone and political stance.
Dumb Luck follows the social ascent of Red-Haired Xuan as he steadily transcends social classes and out-wits both his peers and superiors. Red-haired Xuan is orphaned and homeless and constantly moving between menial jobs such as selling peanuts and newspapers. The novel begins as he is working as a ball boy at a tennis stadium whilst dreaming of progression and self-improvement. A fortune-teller confirms that this is in fact what is in store for him, and sure enough Xuan’s lucky stars soon begin to shine. Climbing his way up the social ladder, he manages to feign wisdom and intellect using the skills he acquired whilst advertising venereal disease medicine and fools the other characters into believing he is a medic student and tennis professor. As the novel progresses, Red-haired Xuan simultaneously becomes both a pioneer for social reform and also for some, a hated citizen of a low social rank. Xuan is somewhat of a marmite personality and sparks debate throughout.
Red-haired Xuan is not the only character to have a peculiar name. The novel hinges on Vietnam’s fixation with Europeanization and its disregard of tradition and conservatism. This is reflected in the characters’ names: Mr and Mrs Civilization, Mrs Deputy Customs Officer and Mr ILL (I Love Ladies). All of the characters are supposedly driven by their role in the movement towards social reform however there is always the underlying feeling that personal gain is their real motive. Vũ Trọng Phụng seems to use the characters as tools to convey his disdain for the acceleration of capitalism at the time.
For me, a really important component in a good novel is characters that you can form some kind of connection with. ‘Dumb Luck’ is not written in a way that allows you to do this. The characters are seemingly 2D in their farcical, fickle and hypocritical nature; they are caricature-like and often so ridiculous they almost seem to mock themselves. However, if you can get past this and read Dumb Luck as a rage against westernisation rather than a typical work of fiction, the point of each character’s absurdness becomes clear (and very funny).
Dumb Luck is unlike anything I have read before; it oozes derision and completely snubs the political and cultural climate in which it was written. I felt particularly connected to the novel due to its Hanoian setting; sometimes when reading a book written nearly a century ago it is difficult to place yourself in its setting, however this was made much easier having Hanoi as the novel’s backdrop, with references to the Old Quarter and West Lake. Although Dumb Luck is perhaps not my favourite book in the world, it challenged and pushed me out of my literary comfort zone and I found myself growing in knowledge about Vietnam’s more recent history and taking an important step towards being more culturally aware of my new home. It’s definitely worth giving it a go, especially if you are a resident of Hanoi like myself!