Số đỏ/Dumb Luck, by Vũ Trọng Phụng

What a difference a century makes! Only a little more than a hundred years after Nguyễn Du’s elegant, Chinese-influenced epic, comes this howlingly profane and unashamed satire of a Vietnam deep in the grips of French influence. Satire, I fear, is a product of its time, and although there were certain elements of this romp through Vietnam which were quite amusing, among them the “Being There” motif of a wholly unqualified person rising stratospherically throguh society. The central conceit of this work, as I understand it, though, is an exploration of just what “modernization” and “Europeanization” were thought to mean in early-mid-20th-century Vietnam, simultaneously representing desirable progress and the abandonment of cherished traditions. The overarching theme thus becomes “modernization is a great thing… for everyone else!” This comes to the fore early on with Mr. TYPN (translated into English as Mr. ILL)’s vocal objection to his wife’s shopping at his boutique, and doesn’t really develop much more in the way of nuance thereafter. I feel like certain aspects of the story straight up sailed over my head, because I wasn’t familiar with either the pre-Europeanized Vietnamese culture (aside from knowing it was heavily Chinese-influenced), nor the particular stew of European influences and the lens they were seen through at the time. It was a reasonably enjoyable read, because it was fun and lively and clever even when not wholly comprehensible, but I fear I might not actually have gotten the joke.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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