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Hanoi Bookshelf: Revisiting 'Dumb Luck' by Vu Trong Phung

Published in 1938, Dumb Luck, or Số Đỏ, remains one of Vietnam's most popular and controversial novels. Vu Trong Phung was fined by the French colonial administration in Hanoi in 1932 for his stark portrayals of sexuality. Dumb Luck, along with most of his works, were banned in 1954 until the late 1980s. Today, Vietnamese who attended public high school are no stranger to Vu Trong Phung as an excerpt from the book, titled "The Happiness of a Family in Mourning," is included in the official literature curriculum.

Dumb Luck follows the life story of Red-Haired Xuan, an unscrupulous vagrant, as he rises from poverty to become the poster child of the country's Europeanization movement. The novel begins with Xuan being fired from his job as a ball boy in a newly built tennis court for peeping at a woman undressing. He then meets Mrs. Deputy Officer, a widow of a French officer, which helps him get a job as a salesman at the Au Hoa tailor shop (Europeanization Tailor Shop in the English translation; the Vietnamese name sounds more fitting for a shop's name while the Europeanization ideology) owned by husband-and-wife duo Van Minh (Mister and Mrs. Civilization in the translation).

Despite being uneducated, Xuan's luck and his knack for bullshitting helps him become a familiar face in the Vietnamese bourgeoisie crowd as he continues to dabble in medicine after unfortunately saving Van Minh's grandpa Hong. He eventually becomes the champion of science, the hero of Buddhist reform, then a professional tennis player and a national hero. At every turn of Xuan's ascension to power and wealth, he encounters the caricatures of many archetypes in the world of the colonized glitterati: the elitist artist, the oh-so-progressive journalist, the free-market Buddhist monk, the liberated woman, the not-so-loyal widow, the modern poet; each portrayed with a bitter and mocking tone.

Phung wrote Dumb Luck in 1936, the year when the Popular Front — an alliance of the French Communist Party, the French socialist party and the Radical-Socialist Republican Party — came to power in France. Despite being anti-colonial in their early years, the Popular Front gradually changed their view towards accepting the empire and wanted to preserve French colonies while instituting a more humane colony policy. Beginning the 1920s, a new Vietnamese middle-class consciousness had also been forged as increased French investment in Indochina ushered in a capitalist economy in An Nam.

While Phung's bitter attack of Westernization among the bourgeoisie was issued during unique sociocultural conditions and retains some temporal meanings, many of Dumb Luck's critiques remain relevant against the backdrop of neo-imperialism and neoliberal discourse in Vietnam.

A Compartmentalized World

One theme that runs throughout Dumb Luck is the distinction between modernity versus tradition and progressive versus conservative. Early on in the novel, it dawns on readers that these distinctions are used as synonyms for the distinction between west versus east. Although Phung shows cynicism towards the Europeanization project, he refrains from suggesting that "tradition" is morally superior, as exemplified by the ridiculing of the opportunistic Buddhist monk Tang Phu in the story. Peter Zinoman, in his comprehensive introduction to the book, contends that this is Phung's "self-reflexive cynicism that he adopts towards his society's obsession with historicism." However, Phung's recurring acknowledgment of this conflict also opens a door to directly question these binary constructions.

Tran Thien Huy, in his analysis of Vu Trong Phung's significance in postcolonial literature, notes that in order to better read Phung's writing, one needs to go beyond the conservatism-versus-progressivism construct:

"Conservatism vs progressivism are concepts only found in the Western political system, a sacred distinction that almost duplicates the distinction between right-wing/left-wing. Imposing these labels onto another culture is to create confusion and unnecessary limitation for both observation and actions, which lessen the merits of independent and multidimensional thinking ability in conscious beings." 

The discourses surrounding modernity and civilization often pinpoints the roots of modernity to the Western world, specifically the philosophical movement of the 17th and 18th centuries which spread to the rest of the non-Western world. The colonial world portrayed in Dumb Luck is a world in which these Eurocentric distinctions subjugate all aspects of life: from language, clothing, science, medicine to sport, and more.

The colonized Vietnamese, especially the middle-class, in the novel are characterized by a constant need to remake themselves in the image of their colonizers. Frantz Fanon, who investigated the psychological condition of colonialism in Black Skin White Masks, argues that colonialism produces a collective mental illness wherein the colonized subject is alienated from their identity and is subjugated to becoming more identical to his colonizers. Achieving whiteness, in Dumb Luck, is a middle-class aspiration as whiteness represents status and power.

"The colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country’s cultural standards," writes Fanon.

Characters in Dumb Luck wear the "white masks" through different forms of performances: the occasional mispronounced French phrases, the westernization of women's clothing, the emphasis on sports that echoes the Popular Front's interest in sport and leisure. Another example is the exchange between the senior clerk and his wife's lover after the clerk caught his wife cheating on him red-handed.

The two men decided to converse in a "respectful tone," on grounds that, as the senior clerk explained: "In spite of my horns, I am still a refined, upper-class intellectual." In one instance, the lover, with the hope of getting out of the situation, tries to restore the senior clerk's ego by comparing him to Napoleon, which calms the clerk's down.

Commodity Fetishism and Spectacle

"How can one tell what is real these days? Everything is so artificial! Love is artificial! Modernity is artificial! Even conservatism is artificial!," suggests Xuan in response to Tuyet's (Miss Snow in the translation) invitation to examine her authentic breast. While the remark was made by Xuan to take advantage of Tuyet's request, it holds a kernel of truth for Phung's primary criticism of Vietnamese society. 

Phung shows, again and again, that the so-called modern people in his novel either fail to practice the Europeanization mission they preach or that their intentions are disingenuous, often motivated by a commercial interest to further their personal gains. The society is Europeanized by virtue of being represented as such. Phung's turns of phrase and playful mishmash of juxtaposition, irony and incongruity constantly lay bare the absurd and topsy-turvy world Xuan is entering — one in which people's actions and the results fail to make any moral sense. Despite branding themselves as the spokespeople for rationality and reason, advocates for the advance of modernity and Europeanization always catch themselves in a network of illogicalities.

In one example, the tailor Mr. ILL, who's famous for his advocacy for women's liberation and equal rights, reacted strongly to his wife wanting to own a modern outfit. In an effort to explain his hypocrisy, Mr. ILL said to his wife: "Don't you know that there are different kinds of women? When we campaign for the reform of women, we mean other people's wives and sisters, not our own!" The statement is then agreed with by the journalist, whose writing also touts support for women rights. 

In the above situation, the two men appropriate and commodify the discourses surrounding women rights in the 1930s are for their own interests. Under this new "modern" shift, women, one can argue, appear "liberated" without any real liberation taking place — their agency is still constrained and their bodies are still defined and managed by men's imagination.

It's worth noting that Phung's own views on a woman's role don't stray too far from the ones he criticized. In one interview, he admitted to a more Confucian ideal of female behaviors, which is equally constrained and problematic. However, Phung's critique remains relevant for a reflection on today's neoliberal discourse on gender equality. Feminist messages in advertising and media narrative that celebrate women — such as women in managerial roles, feel-good stories about women empowerment and women gaining more capital and power — can often serve as a form of perception management to gloss over intersections of economic and social inequality, class, agency and corporate's practices that exploit female labor or objectify women.

Similar to women's issues, other aspects showcasing modern life in Phung's society — including science, medicine and sports — echoes Guy Debord's concept of society of the spectacle: they are no longer experienced but simply represented. Xuan's nonexistent knowledge of medicine and science doesn't prevent him from being a helpful doctor and a champion of science as long as he appears knowledgeable about these subjects. One of the crucial reasons for Xuan's rise to power is his ability to reproduce the language of modernity and progressivism and imitate the manner of the bourgeoisie. At times, words coming out of Xuan's mouth feels like a broken record, repeating in a never-ending loop with an effect akin to gaslighting.

"Considered in its own terms, the spectacle is an affirmation of appearance and affirmation of all human life, namely social life, as mere appearance," writes Debord in his tenth thesis. Phung expresses similar observations about how many of Tu Luc Van Doan group have pushed for tiến hóa về hình thức (progress in appearance) that precedes tiến hóa về tinh thần (spiritual progress). Dumb Luck's society is progressive by virtue of appearing progressive.

The novel in and of itself is also a spectacle as it features caricatures of people whom Phung came across in different sectors of his society and the representation of the spectacular society they were entangled in. What Dumb Luck does, however, is poke holes, pull absurdities and defamiliarize to the point that the society almost resembles a circus in which the performers are their own audiences.


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