Sweeping Asian saga

Steve Bennett, My San Antonio
November 16, 2012

With The Headmaster’s Wager, Vincent Lam has produced a grand, sweeping saga that vividly re-creates 40 crucial years of Asian history from Japanese invasion to the “freeing” of South Vietnam.

When the devastating plot twist comes about three-quarters of the way through “The Headmaster's Wager,” Vincent Lam's masterful debut novel, you may slap your forehead and think, ‘I should have seen that coming.'

But you won't.

See it coming.

You will have been so engrossed in this tale of sacrifice and betrayal set in the Chinese section of '60s Saigon, the Vietnam war moving ominously closer to the capital, that a major ramification of the wager of the title will come as a surprise.

A little later comes a second one, equally stunning. This is literary mystery at its finest.

Lam, a 38-year-old emergency room physician in Toronto who won the Giller Prize, Canada's most prestigious literary award, for his debut story collection “Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures,” is on familiar ground with “Headmaster's Wager”: his family is from the expatriate Chinese community of Vietnam.

The novel is an extension, or an expansion, of a short story from “Bloodletting” called “A Long Migration.”

“The Headmaster's Wager” opens with a brief scene in China in 1930 as a father puts his young son to bed, telling him he will be leaving for “the Gold Mountain in a faraway country” before the child awakens in the morning. He secures the family good luck charm, “a small, rough lump of gold,” around the boy's neck. The boy asks why the charm has no design.

“Your ancestor found it this way,” the father replies. “He left it untouched rather than having it struck or molded, to remind his descendants that one never knows the form wealth takes, or how luck arrives.”

These themes echo throughout the novel.

Fast forward to 1966, Cholon, the Chinese area of Saigon, soon to be Ho Chi Minh City.

Chen Pie Sou, the boy with the gold charm, has become Percival Chen after studying languages in Hong Kong. Fleeing the Japanese occupation during World War II, he lands in Saigon, only to find his prosperous, estranged father on his deathbed, heavily addicted to opium, cuckolded openly by his bitter second wife.

Percival takes over the family rice exporting business, but when Vietnamese law changes, he transforms it into an English language school. The Percival Chen English Academy prospers by teaching translators for the growing American military presence and diplomatic corps.

A wealthy, well-connected man, Chen is nevertheless a bon vivant whose weaknesses will be his downfall. Lam has taken special care to make his main character three-dimensional; Chen likes to gamble, drink and purchase the pleasure of women, the younger the better. All with the utmost discretion for a man of distinction, a divorced father of an impressionable 16-year-old boy.

When his son Jai Dai is detained by the “quiet police” for a political protest, Chen must risk everything to pay a ransom, eventually sending the frightened, tortured boy back to China, where he will be caught up in the Cultural Revolution.

Deep in debt, lonely and restless, Chen visits his favorite casino one night and wins a huge bet against a shadowy figure named Cho that includes a beautiful métisse girl of mixed French and Vietnamese blood. They fall in love and have a son.

Winning this wager changes Chen's life — and his luck — for the better, he believes. A proud man prone to self-delusion, he couldn't be more wrong.

With “The Headmaster's Wager,” Lam has produced a grand, sweeping saga that vividly re-creates 40 crucial years of Asian history from Japanese invasion to the “freeing” of South Vietnam. While the story has a long arc, at the same time Lam conjures a little known world — the somewhat incestuous Chinese expatriate community of war-torn Vietnam — with memorable pictures, imaginative plotlines and complex characters, creating an intimate portrait of a family nearly destroyed by historical events and its own hubris.

© My San Antonio 2012