A Rogue Fate: Giller Prize Winner's Brutal New Novel is a Tragedy of Shakespearean Proportions

The Ottawa Citizen
April 20, 2012

T his is not the first time we have met Percival Chen, one of Saigon's most infamous gamblers and womanizers immediately preceding the communist takeover.

Our first meeting was in A Long Migration, one of the short stories found in the Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning collection Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures by Toronto's Vincent Lam. That doctor-author happens to be Chen's grandson and, to Ottawa folks with sharp memories, the local teenager who played a violin for quarters in the Byward Market two decades ago.

In A Long Migration, published in 2006, Chen was impoverished and dying in a retirement home in Brisbane, Australia. We learned few details about the earlier bacchanalian life of this ethnic Chinese teacher of English in Vietnam who gambled away a fortune, had four wives and bedded many women.

Lam promised us six years ago he would eventually tell us more. And that he has done with The Headmaster's Wager, a compelling, brutal and tragic novel of Shakespearean proportions, inspired by the life of his grandfather.

Chen was born Chen Pie Sou in his native China. As a young man he journeys to Vietnam to find his father who had abandoned the family many years before and now spends his days in a cloud of opium smoke in the mansion he built during a successful career as a rice merchant.

Pie Sou adopts the name of Percival, takes over the family business, turns his mansion into an English school, eventually allies himself with the post-colonial American war machine, and throughout it all, amasses his own fortune.

Percival's life takes the first of many disastrous turns when his son Dai Jai runs afoul of Vietnamese authorities and the father must pay a king's ransom in gold to free him from jail and then send him to China. Dai Jai arrives in China just in time for the turbulent Cultural Revolution of the 1960s when the children of rich landowners, like the Chen family, are imprisoned in harsh re-education camps. Percival now must scheme to get his son back from his homeland.

Further complications arise when, in a mahjong game, Percival wins the beautiful Eurasian prostitute Jacqueline. He falls in love and soon makes her his mistress. Alas, Jacqueline has a secret that, once revealed towards the book's end, shatters Percival's world.

It is risky to say much more about the fast-paced, often violent plot without revealing several shockers that will leave readers reeling even before the dramatic, bittersweet ending and the impression a sequel is surely on the way.

This is a book of immense sadness and scandalous duplicity. There is no hero to this story, only villains of varying degrees. Even Percival, the main character, is too flawed to be likeable. His greed, ambition and lust blind him to the world around him. He cannot even see how many of those closest to him are duping him in monstrous ways.

Percival is also a man of prejudice. He looks down on the Vietnamese and tells his son he must never marry one. Instead, Percival only sees the Vietnamese as a people to be fleeced again and again.

The Chinese merchants are not the only ones pillaging Vietnam. We also meet the French, the Japanese and the Americans who, one after the other, occupy this country, leaving it worse off than before. Eventually the North Vietnamese communists come to power and expel all the foreigners, including the Chinese. Poor, battered Vietnam is as much a character in this story as is Percival.

Generally, Lam portrays Vietnam's ethnic Chinese community in a most unflattering light. He does not come right out and say the ethnic Chinese deserved the harsh treatment they received from the Vietnamese communists but he certainly provides an explanation for their persecution in the 1970s when tens of thousands were killed, expelled or fled, many becoming what we now call the Boat People.

There will undoubtedly be some ethnic Chinese horrified at the way Lam presents them, reinforcing negative stereotypes many people throughout southeast Asia have of them in their own countries. They are seen as greedy merchants who exploit their employees and never assimilate.

This is a stereotype difficult to reconcile with the contemporary image we have of Vietnam's ethnic Chinese refugees as being hard-working, struggling restaurateurs on Somerset Street. We don't see the man serving a fragrant noodle soup as a former haughty millionaire mistreating the working class.

The Headmaster's Wager is brilliant by not perfect. Dialogue is occasionally stilted and some plot twists defy credulity. As well, some of the really nasty character, including Percival's rich, shrewish wife Cecilia, border on caricature.

But, in the end, these are minor faults when compared with the totality of this cinematic, multi-layered book. Indeed, The Headmaster's Wager should end any doubts people ever had about Lam's talent as a writer.

Lam shocked Canada's literary community by winning the Giller with his first book, Bloodletting. There have been unkind whispers since then that he won that prestigious prize because Margaret Atwood had somehow championed his cause. (The two had met and become friends on an Arctic cruise while Lam was still struggling with Bloodletting).

Since then, Lam has produced two works of non-fiction, one a medical book and a short biography of NDP politician Tommy Douglas. The Headmaster's Wager is only his second book of fiction, and it was worth the wait. Now, we can only hope a sequel is in the works. There is more to learn about Percival Chen.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2012