Vincent Lam provides a new view of the Vietnam war
Ian McGillis, The Gazette
mericans, and much of the rest of the world for that matter, call it the Vietnam War, while Vietnamese are more likely to call it the American War. Whatever its name – and clearly which one you choose is freighted with political significance – the southeast Asian conflict of the 1960s and ’70s has not gone under-represented in fiction. But anyone thinking the story is played out, that it has been told from every useful angle already, is about to be proven quite wrong by Vincent Lam.
Lam has taken his time following up his Giller Prize-winning debut collection Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, although he has hardly been idle, having collaborated on a book on flu pandemics and written a biography of Tommy Douglas, not to mention the small matter of continuing to be a practicing doctor. Bloodletting, he has said, was inspired by his work on a Toronto ER ward; now he has applied that personal approach to his family history, using the experience of his Chinese grandfather in Vietnam as the basis for a complex study of family and war.
The headmaster of the novel’s title is Percival Chen, who has inherited his merchant father’s house in Cholon, near Saigon, and turned it into the headquarters of an English school, where business gets better and better as more and more Americans in need of translators appear on the scene. To be Chinese in Vietnam in the 1960s and ’70s was to tread a fine line: Your very presence was a reminder to locals of a long-time foreign oppressor, and as Percival’s success funds an increasingly dissolute personal life of sexual dalliances and gambling (readers who have never played mah-jong might want to Google the rules, as a crucial scene turns on the outcome of a game), he risks compounding his Vietnamese neighbours’ resentment.
Smoothing Percival’s way and running damage control, fortunately, is his loyal Vietnamese friend Mak, the ultimate fixer, playing all sides. When Percival’s teenage son runs afoul of the wrong people, it’s Mak who arranges the son’s escape to Shanghai. Though one wishes to avoid spoilers, readers might well assume any foreign-born son of affluent Chinese going to China on the cusp of the Cultural Revolution isn’t in for a cakewalk, and they would be right; the son, it becomes clear, has to be saved, but the already long odds aren’t helped by the escalating war at home.
Anyone writing historical fiction has to work out the question of historical exposition, with the need for context-setting often resulting in clunky informational passages. Lam gets around that problem by essentially limiting the perspective to Percival’s, letting the reader work out the small- and large-scale implications at Percival’s pace. The decision works both formally and thematically: Percival’s head-in-the-sand refusal to admit that anything is wrong until the truth is undeniable, and his belief that the profit motive absolves him from choosing sides in an elemental conflict, makes a good metaphor for Americans meddling and speaking of “hearts and minds” while the Viet Cong make their way inexorably from the north.
The American presence is represented by Peters, a field operative. A kinsman in fiction to Graham Greene’s Alden Pyle of The Quiet American, Peters bringing a dangerous mix of innocence and arrogance to a country and culture he manifestly does not understand. He’s a repellent but fascinating character who may appear under-drawn until we remember that we’re seeing him through the eyes of Percival, who loathes him even as he courts his business. An exchange seemingly as simple as a handshake becomes a loaded symbol of an unbridgeable gulf: “Even after years of association with the Americans, Percival still disliked having their sweat, their smell, on his hands. He had to remind himself not to pull his hand back too quickly.”
Lam’s focus is intimate, then, but enough of the war does intrude on Percival to give a vivid sense of time and place. While epochal developments like the destruction of Hue and the scorched-earth policy are dealt with obliquely, others – the Tet Offensive, the self-immolation of Buddhist monks, the fall of Saigon – are witnessed by Percival and presented by Lam in set pieces of great power.
It’s that street-level view of a story we’re more accustomed to viewing in panorama that ultimately makes Lam’s novel so effective and affecting. In stages so subtle they’re scarcely noticeable until he’s got you fully in his grip, Lam combines elements of historical fiction, political thriller and domestic drama to present one of the 20th century’s defining stories in a whole new way. The Headmaster’s Wager is more than just an absorbing read. It’s a testament and memorial in fiction to a community that no longer exists.
© The Gazette 2012