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Saigoneer Bookshelf: 'Luminous Nights' Explores the 20th Century Literary Landscape

Why haven’t some of Vietnam’s most famous early 20th-century short stories been translated into English?

With a few notable exceptions, including some by Vietnamese writers, the majority of texts translated worldwide are from, not into, English; and what makes it into English is often dictated by the American market, with American readers looking for something of relevance to them. When it comes to Vietnam, that is the American War. Finally, publishing is ultimately a business, and short stories, in particular, don’t sell compared to novels, let alone non-fiction.

It is against this backdrop that scholar, professor and translator, Quan Manh Ha sought to translate the 16 stories that constitute Luminous Nights, a collection of short works written in the first half of the 20th Century. Consisting of many of the canonical pieces found in high school textbooks, as well as the nation’s most famous authors, it is an overdue reading experience for English-speaking audiences focused on an oft-overlooked time period.

“How much money do you earn from this pond, including the fish and the lotus? About five hundred piasters?” a corrupt coroner asks a villager in the book’s first story. A piastre de commerce, of course, was the legal tender of the French Indochine Colony, and many elements of the colonial era make themselves known early and often in the collection.

Beyond superficial administrative terms, the cultural upheaval of the occupation and increased urbanization is on full display. The narrator in Vũ Trọng Phụng’s satirical “From Theory to Practice” wears western attire and speaks French to provide “one-hundred-percent Westernized, Europeanized opinions…Into the antiquated culture of our yellow-skinned and flat-nosed Vietnamese folks.” The complicated domestic politics of the era are furthered in Nam Cao’s “Eyes,” in which a luftmensch city dweller is forced into the countryside and scoffs at the locals as being “stupid, rude, selfish, greedy, and stingy…These country folks can’t even spell Vietnamese words correctly, but they love to discuss politics.”

While the political situations in the stories may be different compared to today’s climate, an even larger contrast surrounds marriage and gender expectations. Numerous stories focus on domestic issues, including “Wife,” wherein a man purchases his wife’s hand for only 15 đồng and is subsequently overwhelmed by his inability to pay the debt. Nhất Linh’s stellar “Two Sisters” deals more directly with the role of women in marriage, as it presents Binh, a doting, obedient wife, and her sister Lach, a “disobedient, rebellious” woman who runs off to become a dancer. Despite their divergent paths, they ultimately end up equally miserable: one used like an exploited animal and the other seen as a whore. This and other stories suggest women of this time period had little hope of a happy ending.

Across the stories, women bear an unequal share of burdens and household hardships. In Nam Cao’s “Bright Moon,” the protagonist’s wife "ate very little so that her husband could have enough food, she sold her clothes to get medicine for him, but she didn't know that her sacrifices failed to make him happy...” And even more drastically, in Thạch Lam’s “Hunger,” a woman attempts to surreptitiously prostitute herself to provide for her husband when he loses his job. Rather than acknowledge the sacrifice his wife is not happy to be making, he verbally abuses her and wallows in self-pity. While gender inequalities certainly persist in modern-day Vietnam, the stories allow one to reflect on the progress made.

Modern readers may complain that despite a focus on females, there is not a single female writer included in Luminous Nights. Quan explains that from 1917-1945, more than 90% of the Vietnamese population was illiterate, and women had particular difficulty achieving the education level that would have allowed them to become writers, which is the reason none are included.

This issue of literacy is touched on numerous times in the book. Being able to read and write immediately distinguishes a character as of the upper class and thus becomes a stand-in for virtue, refinement and ability. For example, in “The First Love Letter,” by Tô Hoài, the character Mi is described as “by no means stuck up but it wasn’t easy to win her heart because of her beauty and literacy.”

A poor villager, Cuong, decides the only way to express his love for Mi is to learn how to read and write. Through painstaking efforts, the uneducated man struggles as he considers literature, not wealth, power or physical appearance, to be the most desirable quality one can have. Similarly, in “Eyes,” the main characters, despite sharing the same poverty as their neighbors, take great pride in being are able to distinguish themselves via the fact that they end their evenings reading from Chinese epics.

While literacy may be associated with a certain refinement, it is by no means a way to make money, and some of the stories glamorize that fact. Perhaps not surprisingly given the impoverished lives of many of the included authors, romantic notions of the struggling, passion-stricken writer prevail. In “Hunger,” the protagonist ignores the physical comforts of himself and his family for the sake of being able to stare at the moon and write. “He could read literature and poetry, through which he could understand the beauty of a breeze or the moon, and he was displeased by stunted souls like that of his wife. To her, the moon was nothing beyond the fact that it saved her two pennies worth of lamp oil.” Writing might perhaps even supersede moral failures, as in one story a renowned calligrapher on death row for a brutal crime is given special treatment in response to his talents and in exchange for an exclusive piece for the prison warden.

Even more remarkable than the diversity of themes contained in Luminous Nights are the different tones. Considering the widespread economic and societal struggles of the time period, one should not be surprised to encounter depressing, realist descriptions. Poverty, most obviously, is rampant, and readers encounter realities such as: “The Duyens hadn’t been able to afford a small box of matches for at least two years. Their daughter, Gai, always had to walk to the village to ask for some fire when she cooked daily meals.” Or, "...a family quarrels because of poverty and the only thing that alleviates it is a rainfall that brings frogs to eat.”

Neither glamorized nor embellished, the depictions of hardships represent a shift away from idealized experiences that were emerging in Vietnamese literature at the time. Fueled by an emergent culture of literary magazines and an increase in overseas study, a focus on quotidian realities was only one of the new writing styles being popularized.

Satire and ridicule, influenced by French works at the time, attracted talented adherents which are included in the anthology.

The first story announces the power of acerbic humor at the outset when the narrator notes, “As a twist of misfortune and irony, no one ever dies twice and learns the valuable lesson of how and when to die properly.” As a means to entertain, effectively make a point, and provide necessary levity amidst dire situations, humor abounds. Vũ Trọng Phụng of Dumb Luck fame brings his classic satire to poke fun at bourgeoisie notions of class, fidelity and arrogance as well. Such humor not only gives a more complete overview of the era’s literary scene, but makes for a more rich and textured reading experience.

The small French publisher La Frémillerie is releasing Luminous Night in France and via international online booksellers, in a sign of the challenges of bringing translated short stories to English readers. But Quan notes: “They realize that in order to reach a larger audience, they need to publish more English translations besides French. Because my book has a lot to do with the damaging effects of French colonialism and the influence of French literature in Vietnam, it is better to place it with a publisher in France. Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen states, ‘We have to make our nation [the United States] confront what it doesn’t want to remember.' Similarly, I want France to remember what it did to Vietnam.”

While the anthology’s importance for French readers is profound, it is a fantastic book for anyone interested in Vietnamese history, literature and culture, as well as those looking for varied, affecting works. There is a good reason so many of them are canonical elements in the education system, and they are long overdue for broader exposure.

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