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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Dumb Luck

Vũ Trọng Phụng

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To purchase Dumb Luck

Title: Dumb Luck
Author: Vũ Trọng Phụng
Genre: Novel
Written: 1936 (Eng. 2002)
Length: 189 pages
Original in: Vietnamese
Availability: Dumb Luck - US
Dumb Luck - UK
Dumb Luck - Canada
Dumb Luck - India
Le fabuleux destin de Xuan le Rouquin - France
  • Vietnamese title: Số đỏ
  • Translated by Nguyễn Nguyệt Cầm and Peter Zinoman
  • With an Introduction by Peter Zinoman

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Our Assessment:

B : reasonably amusing look at 1930s Vietnam

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 12/1/2003 Sheridan Prasso
World Literature Today . 7-9/2003 James Banerian

  From the Reviews:
  • "A lively and engaging novel that is pure social critique (.....) 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 (.....) 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." - Sheridan Prasso, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Through this transformation, the author lampoons the pretentiousness and hypocrisy of modernization movements raging through Hanoi at the time. Indeed, Xuan's success is largely due to the conceits of his sponsors and acquaintances, some of whom try to use him for their own advantage, as well as to his own craftiness. The translation Dumb Luck, by Nguyen Nguyet Cam and Peter Zinoman, captures the humor of the original expressively through present-day American English. (...) The translation is often clever, although this reviewer disagrees with some of the interpretations; the title's rendering as Dumb Luck, for example, is inaccurate and completely misses the author's point. Despite these caveats, the book is an amusing read both in Vietnamese and in English, and worthwhile for its unique and comical look at Hanoi in social transition." - James Banerian, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The central figure in Dumb Luck is Red-Haired Xuân. A young man who had lost his parents in childhood and gotten by doing everything from helping to sell venereal disease medicine to being a tennis ball boy, his stroke of luck comes when he is fired from his ball boy job for peeping into the women's changing room. A fortune teller has told him that: "Your fortune looks very good, indeed", but when they're both hauled off to the police station the future doesn't look all that bright -- until Mrs. Deputy Customs Collector comes to their rescue.
       The widowed Mrs. Deputy Customs Collector, mother of a boy-child who is nearing puberty but still coddled like a baby, entertains fantasies of being ravaged by Red-Haired Xuân, but makes do by getting him a job, at the Europeanization Tailor Shop. Vietnam is in the midst of embracing all things European -- hence such tailor shops, as well as language sprinkled with French loan-words and phrases. Hence also characters with names such as Mr. and Mrs. Civilization, who run the tailor shop -- and maintain:

our society progresses according to the basic laws of evolution. During this deeply reformist era everything conservative must be eliminated.
       Red-Haired Xuân is nothing if not an opportunist, and misguided folk who are full of themselves like the Civilizations provide opportunity galore, especially when they seek to enlist him to: "assist in the Europeanization of society." And he doesn't really have to try very hard:
Almost effortlessly and without being truly aware of it, he was gradually becoming an important player in society. His stupidity was mistaken for a combination of courtesy and modesty, and it made him wildly popular.
       Luck helps, too, as he opportunely is found to have great medical expertise (not that saving Great-Grandpa's life is something that is welcomed by all the family members who are already eyeing their inheritances ...) and his tennis-playing skills also come into play. Cuckolded ('horned') men (and the occasional randy woman) complicate some of the matters, but in the drive to Europeanize and embrace 'civilization' explanations are found for everything. Hence also the rallying cry (which surprisingly does not seem to have caught on):
Long live Europeanization ! Long live rubber breasts !
       Dumb Luck -- the work of a very young author, it should be remembered -- is fairly amusing, though the broad satire feels a bit dated so far out of its context (and especially given what the nation has been through in the decades since); still, it can be compared to similar humorous social criticism in Europe and the US (in book and film) of the same era -- albeit with some slightly different targets. The episodes and characterizations are largely good fun, but one senses that not all the humor translates particularly readily. (Peter Zinoman's introduction is helpful, but not entirely convincing in making the case for Vũ Trọng Phụng's pre-eminence.)
       Certainly, Dumb Luck is more than just a historical curiosity -- but not all that much more.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 August 2009

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Dumb Luck: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Vietnamese author Vũ Trọng Phụng lived 1912 to 1939.

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