found in translation: gangsters and pulp fiction in Vietnam (da nang part #2)
I posted a while back about the wide range of foreign-language works available in Vietnam, ranging from some pretty highbrow philosophical works to cartoons and pulp fiction, including a (to me) surprising copy of Fredrick Forsyth’s The Odessa Files published in Ho Chi Minh City in 1988.
Based on my recent trip to Đà Nẵng, I’m starting to think that the whole 1980s and early 1990s was actually a rather rich period for translation of crime writing and pulp fiction into Vietnam, perhaps mirroring the current flood of pop-finance books (Vietnam may not yet have welcomed the Golden Arches or the Peace Corps, but it has certainly not avoided the rash of Rich Dad, Poor Dad-style books of the past decade or so.)
1980s Gangster and Mafia books from US and Czech writers
In Hồng Đức Bookshop in Đà Nẵng recently I came across a curious pair of books published at the start of the Đổi Mới period. Găng-xtơ: Dặc sản Hoa kỹ (literally Gangster: An American Specialty) by American writers Martin Gosch and Richard Hammer was published in Vietnam in 1986. It is probably a translation of their 1981 book The Last Testament of Lucky Luciano. Immediately next to it on the shelf was a translation of Mafia by Czech author V.P.Borovicka, which was published in Đà Nẵng in 1987.
Together with these books was another novel from 1986 by Vietnamese author Triệu Huấn which, judging by the cover art and a quick scan of the contents, seems to be a kind of Vietnamese equivalent of Frederick Forsyth-style fiction, with a plot involving international politics, American drug-smuggling gangsters and the CIA.
Triệu Huấn’s Cái Tẩu (The Pipe) next to a beaten up copy of Irving Stone’s Lust for Life
Maybe this was tapping into the whole voyeuristic ‘condemning degenerate/immoral society’ marketing ploy, as applied to great effect a few years back by local filmmakers with productions like Gái Nhảy (Bar Girls). (I’m not sure how this has evolved more recently with such, uh, stellar productions as 2011’s Bóng Ma Học Đường; I don’t really have any plans to subject myself to this film just to find out whether the censorship board required a moral buried somewhere in amongst the appalling horror effects and Elly Tran scenes.)
Later I stumbled upon the lovely little Thy Book Cafe on Lý Tự Trọng street, close to the Đà Nẵng Museum and the ramparts of the old citadel. The upstairs room is designed for readers, with a wide range of books available. Notwithstanding the sobering presence of Communist Party theorist Trương Chình’s Về văn hóa và nghệ thuật (well, volume two at least), many of the books here also fit comfortably under the heading of 1980s pulp fiction.
Thy Book Cafe in Đà Nẵng
In particular, I found quite a selection of translated works by James Hadley Chase. He was an English writer who had a huge output of gangster novels set in the US from the late-1930s through the mid-1980s. He never really lived in the US; apparently he wrote his books, which were mostly based on real incidents, with the aid of maps and a dictionary of US slang and a stock-in-trade of stereotypical ‘treacherous blonde’ female characters. He was apparently also very popular in Africa and Asia (this despite the appalling original title of his 1940 book 12 Chinks and a Woman), and in the Soviet Union around the time these books were published in Vietnam.
Crime fiction in Vietnam
The assortment of translated works from the late 1980s and early 1990s in the cafe also includes James Grady’s Six Days of the Condor, Victor Hugo’s Haitian novel Bug Jargal, a couple of books by Pearl S. Buck, and Han Suyin’s autobiographical work Birdless Summer. This last one is quite interesting: Han Suyin writes about her experiences in China in the final days of Kuomingtang rule and of the death of her husband fighting Mao’s Communists.
Finally, I also came across FULRO, written by Ngôn Vĩnh and published by NXB Công An Nhân Dân (the Public Security Publishing House) in 2005. FULRO (the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races) fought against the Southern Vietnamese regime for the establishment of an independent homeland for ethnic groups in the central highlands of Vietnam. After the reunification of the country they continued their fight in the mountains on the border of Vietnam and Cambodia until 1992, when the remaining fighters came out through Cambodia and were granted entry to the United States.
I’m not sure how much the selection of books here actually reveals about the current reading habits of young people in Đà Nẵng. Or how now very dated crime fiction reads in Đà Nẵng in 2011. Perhaps this place works something like a beach house, offering a kind of final sanctuary for unwanted and out-of-date books. Certainly these books have been read many times before. And as with a holiday house, now and then a curious person with some free time may find some interest in their tattered pages.