| Delving deeper: Peter Zinoman poses for a photo with his newly-published Vietnamese Colonial Republican: The Political Vision of Vu Trong Phung. — VNS Photo Le Huong
by Le Huong
On a cold winter morning in 2002, American researcher Peter Zinoman was among few people searching for material in a spacious reading room of the National Library in downtown Ha Noi.
The familiar "bookworm" at the library felt warm despite the chilly weather as the librarian brought over a faded copy of Bac Ha newspaper published in 1937, which he had searched everywhere for.
He was thrilled with excitement to spot a long interview with Vu Trong Phung (1912-1939), the first interview on the talented Vietnamese writer that he had come across.
That was one of the most remarkable moments during his decade doing research on the noted writer, considered the "king of reportage in the north of Viet Nam" during the 1930s.
The material Zinoman found that morning was also an important reference for his recent book Vietnamese Colonial Republican: The Political Vision of Vu Trong Phung, the first book in English depicting the political vision of a Vietnamese writer.
After coming to Viet Nam during the late 1990s, Zinoman was first interested in the French colonial jail system in Viet Nam, which included prisons on the southern island of Con Dao and in the northern province of Son La as well as famous Hoa Lo in the heart of Ha Noi.
Yet during the process of searching for pieces on jails in the country, he stumbled across a novel by Vietnamese writer Vu Trong Phung entitled Nguoi Tu Duoc Tha (The Prisoner is Released). Phung's unique writing style lured Zinoman to seek out other pieces by him, like novels So Do (Dumpluck), Giong To (The Storm), Lam Di (To be a Whore) and Vo De (The Dike Breaks). The recent collection Ve Nho Boi He (Clown Make-Up) featured much of Phung's lost reportage.
"I found So Do so fantastic, funny, interesting, rich and complex, unlike the other pieces by Vietnamese writers I had read," he said. "The more I studied, the more I became interested in him."
Through Phung's colossal heritage of nine novels, 30 short stories, nine serial reportage and seven drama screenplays –written in only nine years–Zinoman was surprised that the writer wrote in a diverse array of styles: funny, sarcastic, ironic, realistic, imaginative. He sometimes wrote polished novels, but most of the reportage and articles were in the rough style of everyday writing.
Zinoman even nicknamed Phung the first blogger of Viet Nam, as no one before him had written so much about everyday things.
"I think Phung is a great writer. The only reason why people in the world don't know much about him is that he wrote only in Vietnamese," Zinoman said.
Literature researcher Lai Nguyen An, who helped Zinoman during the research process, praised him as "a serious researcher", who focused not only on Phung's works but also on the context of literary and historical developments in Viet Nam and Southeast Asia.
"He sometimes raises sharp questions on Vietnamese literature, which always startle me," commented literature critic Pham Xuan Nguyen, a close friend of Zinoman. "His research contains various valuable judgements and evidence to clarify the late writer's point of view, which has been misunderstood among both the Vietnamese public and researchers," Nguyen said.
In his latest book on Phung's political vision, Zinoman argues that Phung loved freedom, acted against capitalism, opposed any kind of desperate government, and supported small reforms, education and science.
"I have to publish my findings [on Phung's political view] as I know that during the 1950s, Vu Trong Phung was a controversial writer whose political life was quite misunderstood. He was even banned at bookstores," Zinoman said.
As a lecturer of history and Southeast Asia Studies at the University of California, Zinoman has another reason to come to Viet Nam regularly: he is married to a Vietnamese woman, who is also a scholar doing a PhD in Vietnamese literature in the US and has been very helpful and "important" to Zinoman's career. They met when Zinoman was teaching at Ha Noi National University and she was a student there. — VNS