Dumb Luck

A Novel by Vu Trong Phung
Peter Zinoman, Editor
Translated by Peter Zinoman and Nguyen Nguyet Cam with an Introduction by Peter Zinoman
This once banned book is the first colonial-era Vietnamese novel to be translated into English and published in the West


Dumb Luck, by the brilliant, controversial, and influential Vietnamese writer Vu Trong Phung, is a bitter satire of the rage for modernization in Vietnam during the late-colonial era. First published in Hanoi in 1936, it follows the absurd and unexpected rise within colonial society of a street-smart vagabond named Red-haired Xuân. As it charts Xuân's fantastic social ascent, the novel provides a panoramic view of late-colonial urban social order-from the filthy sidewalks of Hanoi's old commercial quarter to the gaudy mansions of the emergent Francophile northern upper classes. A major theme of the work is the transformation of traditional Vietnamese class and gender relations triggered by the growth of colonial capitalism.

This novel, banned in most of Vietnam until 1986, is the first translation of a major work by Vu Trong Phung. The novel's clever plot, richly drawn characters, humorous tone, and preoccupation with sex, fashion, and capitalism will attract a wide audience.

Vu Trong Phung is arguably the greatest Vietnamese writer of the twentieth century. Compared to Balzac by some, he was a prolific and controversial satirist unafraid to challenge the prevailing mores of his age. Although he died before his twenty-seventh birthday, Vu Trong Phung amassed a body of work that includes eight novels, seven plays, and five book-length works of nonfiction. Dumb Luck is generally acknowledged as his defining masterpiece.

Peter Zinoman is Associate Professor of Southeast Asian History at the University of California, Berkeley. A writer, editor, and translator in addition to being a scholar, his research interests include the cultural, social, and political history of Vietnam, as well as the history of twentieth-century Vietnamese literature. He is also the author of The Colonial Bastille: A History of Imprisonment in Vietnam, 1862-1940.

Nguyen Nguyet Cam is Vietnamese Language Instructor at the University of California, Berkeley. A gifted linguist, she has published numerous translations of works from English into Vietnamese, including two of E. B. White's classic children's novels, Charlotte's Web and The Trumpet of the Swan. She has also translated several pieces of Vietnamese fiction into English.

Praise / Awards

  • ". . . it is [the] clash between tradition and modernity that Phung brings to light with amusingly biting satire. . . . 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."
    ---Sheridan Prasso, Los Angeles Times, January 12, 2003
  • "Dumb Luck and Zinoman's thorough, scholarly, eye-opening introduction to it ought to earn Phung a secure niche in the academic world lit canon for some time to come."
    ---MultiCultural Review
  • ". . . captures the humor of the original expressively through present-day American English. The editor's introduction summarizes the author's personal and professional background and links So Do to issues of historicism, cosmopolitanism, and language as a tool for power. . . . [T]he book is an amusing read both in Vietnamese and English, and worthwhile for its unique and comical look at Hanoi in social transition."
    ---James Banerian, World Literature Today
  • Named one of the best books of fiction in 2003 by the Los Angeles Times Sunday Book Review

Look Inside

Copyright © 2002, University of Michigan. All rights reserved. Posted September 2002.

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Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 200pp.
  • 1 photograph.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Paper
  • 2002
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-06804-3

Add to Cart
  • $21.95 U.S.