Electric Lights and Clouds of Dust: A Reading and Translation of Nguyễn Trọng Hiệp’s Paris, capitale de la France / 大法國玻璃都城襍詠Charles Rice Davis, Mia Nakayama
In the very large critical body on the work of Walter Benjamin, little (and only passing) attention has been devoted to the epigraph of Benjamin’s 1935 exposé, “Paris, Capital of the 19th Century,” a twice-delivered working paper central to his project on the modern city. This epigraph—which also appears at the head of the English-language edition of Benjamin’s collected Arcades Project which has spawned so much work in urban studies—is taken from a rare book of verse written in French and Chinese, published by the Vietnamese diplomat Nguyễn Trọng Hiệp. Paris, capitale de la France offers both historical insight and an estranged perspective to the shifting urban landscape of fin-de-siècle Paris. And also to Benjamin: what did he find pertinent about such an obscure work and why does he give it such a prominent place of its own? More broadly, Nguyễn’s documentary style, both in tone and subject matter, reflects his high-level administrative background and interaction with the colonial Empire. Aesthetic observations are coupled with remarks about traffic patterns, the number of floors in residential buildings and which department stores have the most customers, as Nguyễn documents the technology, practices and “resources” of France. Finally, we offer a translation of the thirty-six poems, drawing from both French and Chinese versions of the text.