Can there not be virtue in an unrepentant pursuit of money, if wealth means being able to buy the safety of one's loved ones during times of political violence?
In his long-awaited new novel, Vincent Lam seems to argue that there can be. Inspired by Lam's own family history, The Headmaster's Wager tells the story of Chen Pie Sou, a man who can exercise the power of privilege but who also indulges recklessly in privilege's vices.
When the hostilities of the Vietnam War threaten members of his family, Chen Pie Sou learns that the limits of his power are dictated not by the size of his fortune, but by the strength of his self-mastery.
In 1966, Chen Pie Sou, also known as Percival, is the headmaster of Percival Chen English Academy in Cholon, a Chinese-influenced market area just outside central Saigon. A Chinese expatriate from Shantou, Percival has done well, first in his father's rice trade, then in the business of English lessons. He is fiercely proud of his Chinese heritage.
When his son, Dai Jai, is seen with one of the school's female students, Percival warns Dai Jai of the deceitful nature of such Annamese women. He reminds Dai Jai that the two of them are wa kiu, overseas Chinese, who, no matter where they go in the world, must remain Chinese. When Dai Jai's subsequent attempt to prove his Chinese patriotism offends Vietnamese authorities, Percival must draw on every last outstanding favour in the city in order to protect his son.
Percival cannot both keep the boy in Vietnam and keep him safe. Dai Jai is sent away to China at the height of the Cultural Revolution. In the wake of this loss, Percival abandons himself to massive gambles. His luck turns when Jacqueline, a mixed-race Vietnamese-French prostitute, enters his life. Smitten with her exotic beauty, Percival ignores both his own mores and the warnings of Teacher Mak, his adviser, and pursues a relationship with her. Jacqueline soon bears Percival a son, on the eve of the Tet Offensive, as the crackle of gunfire echoes in the streets of Cholon.
As fighting in central Vietnam intensifies, Percival does his best to remain on the sidelines of the conflict, insisting that his indifference to politics is evidence of a simple Chinese business savvy. But when it becomes clear that Dai Jai is suffering in China, Percival taps his connections again to try to bring his son home, though he finds that the rules have changed drastically. To save his son in China, and his young son in Saigon, Percival must risk more than his fortune; he risks his life.
Lam's fast-paced portrait of Cholon in the years from the Second World War to the early 1970s is captivating. He invigorates the epic, but well-worn, narrative terrain of the Vietnam War with the freshness of Percival Chen's outsider-insider perspective. This Chinese character dwells in a uniquely negotiable relationship to the Vichy French, Japanese, South Vietnamese, U.S. and North Vietnamese forces who each dominate Saigon in their turn. The headmaster's determination to play all sides makes for a compelling story of a man guessing his way through a guerrilla war.
But the characters of The Headmaster's Wager remain flat, or in the case of the headmaster, increasingly unsympathetic. Percival's self-interested distance from the Annamese people who provide his livelihood is – arguably – redeemed by his loyalty to his family and his generosity with beggars and employees. But Percival's inner conflict about Jacqueline stems not from her profession but from a racism that most contemporary readers would never accept as a simple “fierce pride” were it expressed by a Caucasian protagonist.
Jacqueline is a caricature, perpetuating all the usual exoticized stereotypes of racially mixed people. Lam also mishandles the construction of his protagonist's taste for prostitutes by romanticizing it and providing full voyeuristic access to the headmaster's enjoyments and abuses of his hires.
I love this book's vivid realization and its deft weave of conspiracies. I especially admire Lam's ability to transport a reader. But my sympathy soon tires for this expat businessman who warns his son off fraternizing with the locals and who proudly makes money off these same locals' lack of “sophistication.” I waited for the development of Percival's character, for some shift in his disgust over his attraction to Jacqueline, or for a turn of events to give consequence to the headmaster's inability to see non-Chinese as equals. It never came.
I understand that Lam meant to create a character “flawed” in his womanizing and gambling. He succeeds at shaping Percival as a principled man whose compulsivity makes the reader flinch. But it's hard to know if Percival's resistance to interacting with the Vietnamese is being painted as flaw or as honour, when in this third-person narrative, Vietnamese characters appear only as villains, mute servants or sex objects. Could it be that Lam's refusal to allow these characters three-dimensionality was intentional, meant to reflect Percival's own way of filtering his world?
The Headmaster's Wager is indeed a colourful, suspenseful depiction of Chinese living in Vietnam during the war, but its patronizing approach to characters ethnically different from the headmaster gradually eroded any care I had for what happens to him.