Dumb Luck Gets Lucky
By Priyangwada Perera
The writer and the traveller in Saman Athaudahetti are constantly in competition with each other. Since it is a competition between two intricate components of Athaudahetti’s own identity, the competition only brings out the best. The writer Athaudahetti is supported, satiated and elevated by the traveller Athaudahetti.
Where is the best place to go if one is in search of Athaudahetti? Take my advice and hit the book shops if you are looking for this man. Search carefully though as he is bound to be lost in some dream world, with his nose in a book and he will not see or hear you frantically searching for him. When Ambassador for Vietnam at the time, Hasanthi Dissanayake suggested Athaudahetti visit one particular bookshop, he took wings in no time.
Out of the English translations he bought, Dumb Luck was one. However, the busy man couldn’t find the time to read it. He happened to mention the book to Prof. Sunil Ariyaratne and the thrilled Professor pushed him to read and see what connections we can fish out from the old Vietnamese culture. Using Professor’s words as a catalyst, Athaudahetti started reading and he couldn’t help but feel the book relates to Sri Lanka well. Grasping this connection, Athaudahetti comes up with his latest translation of the Dumb Luck, Vasa Vasi.
Speaking to Ceylon Today, Athudahetti explained the crucial political context. “This book is considered a pioneer text in the new literature of Vietnam. The book is written in the time between the World War I and World War II. It is both written and based on this particular time when Vietnam was a French colony.
These countries were called French Indo-China, officially known as the Indochinese Union. These colonies also had kings who were kept just nominally, whereas the real king was the French. The others were under governors. In the 1930s, the French Prime Minister appointed someone who was against the ill-treatment of colonies, as the Minister in charge. This Minister brought some relief to the colonies. He released political prisoners and was more lenient with the rules that pressed them.”
Athaudahetti continued, “This resulted in a wave of strikes and fights of labourers in Vietnam. There was a brand new awakening giving birth to new thinking and concepts. Modernisation, Europeanisation, freedom for women, heightened interest in sports; all started springing up. This also gave birth to new classes in their society. This is where our author Vu Trong Phung comes in.”
Phung looked at these emerging classes with much contempt and scorn. But how this is brought to life was with a strong satirical and humorous outer mask which became the base for this novel. However, Phung wrote this first as an episodic novel to a newspaper in 1936. Then he published it as a book. But after the publication, by the 1940s the book was banned saying Phung had written something unethical.
He had to undergo interrogation. He was already suffering from Tuberculosis and was addicted to Opium both of which contributed to his downfall in terms of health. At the age of 27, he bade farewell to life. However, records tell us that by this time, Vu Trong Phung had published at least eight novels, seven plays and several other works of fiction, apart from Dumb Luck. Due to this reason, he is called the Balzac of Vietnam.
Ironically, Dumb Luck is all about dumb luck as it remained banned till 1986.
As the Communist Vietnam progressed, out of the blue the book is remembered by them. They appointed a committee to find out more. It is this committee report that sanctioned the book again. What was written in 1936 was cleared of the ban in 1986 starting the new journey of the book. A chapter from Dumb Luck made its way to a text book in Vietnam’s Advanced Level curriculum. It was such an achievement to a dejected writer’s rejected book. Dumb Luck was translated to English in 2002.
Reading this wonderful book, Athaudahetti told his faithful Prem Dissanayake, “let’s get on with it,” and Dissanayake got the copyrights done. With Vasa Vasi in print, Athaudahetti gratefully remembered Hasanthi Dissanayake who found all the names and how they are pronounced and all the information related, from the Vietnam end. Reading Vasa Vasi I felt it is near and dear to us Sri Lankans.
Before translating Dumb Luck, Athaudahetti did a study on Vietnam which came as the backdrop of the novel. In preparation of this translation, the social and political aspects of the time the novel was written were studied by Athaudahetti. “I feel Vietnamese literature has never really made an entrance to Lankan readers. Except for some Vietnamese folk tales, I don’t remember reading anything,” he said.
The period in this book was written, Vietnam was greatly influenced by the French. French was also the language of the elite. In the original text, there were certain words and phrases which were unique to two languages. “So, I had to be fairly well-equipped with knowledge about the background where the story is set in. That is the usual method I use with every text but this required facts about Vietnam in the 1930s.
That had me reading, watching videos and talking to people so that I had enough understanding to handle the book comfortably when it comes to translating. Facts about both France and Vietnam were necessary. I had to find people who knew about both countries and learn about both. People like Gamini Viyangoda helped me with this,” Athaudahetti said. Trusting his prowess with words we know that the translation has done justice to the original.
Visit your local book shop and you will find Vasa Vasi majestically waiting on the shelves. However, that is not where Vasa Vasi should be kept. Buy yourself a copy. It belongs in your collection.