BookNAround: The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam
October 01, 2012
ercival Chen is the Chinese headmaster of an English school in Saigon. He was forced to leave his beloved China when the Japanese invaded in the 1930's and he chose to flee to Vietnam where there were rumors of abundance despite the wartime austerity elsewhere in Asia and because his own father had long since gone to Vietnam to find his fortune. With him, Chen Pie Sou, renamed Percival by the English teachers in Hong Kong, took his new wife Cecelia, a woman with whom he had long been in love but who resents the fact that this lower class man is her only means of escape from the very real threat of atrocities. Many years later, in Cholon, the Chinese section just outside of Saigon, Percival is thriving as the headmaster of the school he and his closest friend, Teacher Mak, founded in the former rice warehouse of his father; he and Cecelia are divorced; and he is raising their only son Dai Jai very strictly in accordance with his Chinese heritage. Percival has amassed quite a lot of money and he never hesitates to use it to his and the school's advantage. His political affiliations are fluid and flexible depending on just who holds the power in the rapidly changing city. He ignores the civil war raging in the country and focuses instead on catering to those who can most help him line his own pockets. He is a gambler, both in mah jong and other games of chance but also with his life and livelihood.
When sixteen year old Dai Jai makes a show of resistance, refusing to take Vietnamese language classes as the new educational edict requires (and despite the fact that Dai Jai as a Vietnam-born Chinese is fluent in the language, even having a Vietnamese girlfriend), Percival's life starts to change and his blithe indolence comes face to face with the reality of what we in the West call the Vietnam War and the brutal personalities created and elevated by war. Percival adores his son and with the help of Teacher Mak, he spirits Dai Jai out of Vietnam, sending him back to China just in time to suffer the excesses of Mao's Cultural Revolution, not that Percival knows this. Once Dai Jai is gone, Percival must settle the enormous debts he accrued in rescuing his boy and in one of the riskiest bets he's made so far, he wins an enormous amount of money and an introduction to a beautiful metisse (half Vietnamese half French) woman whom he makes his mistress. As the war gets ever closer to Saigon, Percival finds solace in the arms of the beautiful Jacqueline, he trusts in his colleague Mak, and he continues to use the school to further his own desires without regard to the worsening political climate and ever advancing war.
Readers with even a passing familiarity with the timeline of the Vietnam War will know by the dates heading each section of the book just how dangerous Percival's deliberate obtuseness about the war is growing and they will tense in anticipation of the blows that must historically come. This is a very different look at the Vietnam War though, neither from the Vietnamese perspective or the American perspective but from an ex-pat Chinese man who, despite having lived in the country for so long, feels no unity with the local people, feels that this war is not his and that he and his family can stay outside the conflict, spending money to maintain their neutrality and without understanding the complete and total loyalty to them that the prevailing regime expects. In fact, the reader has to sympathize with Percival, who despite being a gambler, does not recognize that the stakes have changed and that his hand is no longer high.
This is a multi-layered, pleasingly complex tale with fantastic characterizations, unexpected but believable plot twists, and a firm grounding in the attitudes of the foreign-born people populating the Saigon of the time. Race, divided loyalties, the covert nature of war, calculated and foolish risk, and love are all woven masterfully throughout the narrative. Thoroughly engrossing, this is a novel the reader will find hard to put down and even harder to walk away from even after closing the back cover of the novel, continuing to speculate on Percival Chen's biggest wager of all. What you can bet on with this novel is that you'll be glad to have read it and will definitely recommend it to other thoughtful readers who appreciate a well-crafted, riveting tale.
© BookNAround 2012