BOOK REVIEW Peter Zinoman’s Vietnamese Colonial Republican: The Political Vision of Vũ Trọng Phụng (2013)

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Zinoman, Peter. Vietnamese Colonial Republican: The Political Vision of Vũ Trọng Phụng. University of California Press, 2013

Using never before translated writings, literary sources, and family archives, Peter Zinoman meticulously traces life and works of Vu Trong Phung (1912-1939), one of Vietnam’s most prolific and controversial modernist writers of the twentieth century. Through the intellectual history of Vu Trong Phung, Zinoman reveals the dynamics of intellectual life and publication in late colonial society as well as the cultural politics of post-colonial censorship through Phung’s enduring reputation. Zinoman argues that Phung was a ‘late colonial republican’—a term coined by Zinoman to characterize Phung’s inchoate combination of anti-communism, anti-capitalism, and anti-colonialism in his writings, a commitment to free speech and rule of law, and the experience of localized republican politics in colonial Vietnam. Anticommuism republicanism denounced the totalitarianism of Leninism and Stalinism as antidemocratic. Zinoman situates Phung’s ‘republicanism’ within the context of Third Republic French policies in the colonies (by Governor General Albert Sarraut, Alexander Varenne, and Jules Brevie) to develop Franco-Vietnamese schools, economic development, and a policy of political association for Vietnamese gradual independence. Yet, Zinoman also argues that the ‘republican’ rhetoric did not manifest into political action and social change in colonial Vietnam.

Most importantly Zinoman’s contributes a complex understanding of modernity in his examination of Phung’s filtered, anachronistic literary engagements with nineteenth century romantic French literature (Emile Zola, Andre Gide) and social sciences (Emile Durkheim and Sigmund Freud). From satire to reportage, the topics of Phung’s works covered the underbelly of colonial urbanism and capitalism including criminals, prostitutes, corrupt authorities, and beggars. Phung’s works included “The Industry of Marrying Europeans,” “Venereal Disease Clinic”, and “Dumb Luck.” Furthermore, Zinoman explains Phung’s fixation with sexuality and sex as a way of critiquing colonial capitalism, Vietnamese moral values, and society at large. Yet at the same time, Phung’s ambivalent and at times conservative position on women and sexuality, seem to undermine the simple categorization of Phung as ‘progressive’ republican. In the final chapter Zinoman traces the complex afterlife of the literary figure Phung through to the present. The political classification of Phung’s work reflects the changing cultural politics of Vietnam—critiqued as a deviant pornographer during his lifetime, denounced as a dangerous political revolutionary by the DRV, recovered and then banned in the 1958 Nhân Văn Giai Phẩm movement, and then rehabilitated in the Renovation reforms of the 1980s.

Historiography: Through this analysis of the politically ambiguous and culturally eclectic modernist writer Vu Trong Phung, Vietnamese Colonial Republican complicates understandings of (1) colonial modernity and (2) the over-worn political categories of nationalism, anti-colonialism, communism, and collaboration. Some scholars  have questioned if the category of ‘republican’ adequately characterizes Phung’s ambivalent political platform, particularly since Phung self-identified as a literary ‘realist.’ Instead, the question is if these eclectic political-cultural views were representative of a large group of Vietnamese and French intellectuals in the late colonial period. Similarly, other scholars have questioned Phung’s conservative and nostalgic outlook in his work that undermine Zinoman’s casting of Phung as a ‘liberal’ Republican.

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