The Headmaster’s Wager, by Vincent Lam

Review copy courtesy Doubleday Canada

The present tense of Vincent Lam’s The Headmaster’s Wager opens in 1966, the most recent Vietnam War already under way and American involvement beginning to increase. But the novel starts with a short memory passage from 1930: the eve of the departure of the father of the central character (born Chen Pie Sou, but now known as Percival Chen) from China to Cholon, the Chinese community just outside Saigon:

This place in Indo-China was just like China, he had heard, except with money to be made, from both the Annamese and their French rulers.

With his thick, tough fingers, Chen Kai [the father] fumbled to undo the charm that hung from his neck. He reached around his son’s neck as if to embrace him, carefully knotted the strong braid of pig gut. Chen Pie Sou searched his chest, and his hand recognized the family good luck charm, a small rough lump of gold.

“Why does it have no design, ba?” said Chen Pie Sou. He was suprised to be given this valuable item. He knew the charm. He also knew the answers to his questions. “Why is it just a lump?”

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

The 36 years between that departure to Saigon and the present have been marked by a continuing series of conflicts in Vietnam, all with their own atrocities: Japanese occupation, a war with the French imperialists and now conflict between the South and North, soon to include the Americans.

The Chens, as Chinese merchants, are not political and have been on no side in any of these conflicts. Rather, they have been businessmen who accepted whatever system was currently in power, willing to part with the red envelopes stuffed with bribes that made business possible and exploit the niche that yielded the most current profit. Chen Kai grew rich in the lucrative rice trade and built the family mansion, Chen Hap Sing, before the Chinese were banned from trading rice. But the family has always been able to spot opportunity — the house and former rice warehouses of Chen Hap Sing are now the Percival Chen English Academy, training the translators who are increasingly in demand as more and more Americans arrive.

That sustained economic success as repressive regimes change requires non-involvement not just in the politics of the day but also avoidance of any close personal connection with non-Chinese. As the book opens Percival is having a confrontation with his teenage son Dai Jai whom, he has heard from teacher Mak, the Academy’s effective headmaster, has been seen (often) with an Ammanese student at the school. He is about to tell Dai Jai that the involvement has to end when a black Ford Galaxie pulls up outside:

Dark-coloured cars were something the Americans had brought to Vietnam, thinking them inconspicuous. They had not noticed that almost all of the Citroens and Peugeots that the French had left behind were white. Now, many Saigon officials had dark cars, tokens of American friendship.

Two Vietnamese officals emerge and soon communicate the latest government policy: all schools must teach Vietnamese. Chen protests that this is an English academy, not a school, but, under modest pressure from Mak, signs the agreement — it is important not to make waves. The new policy does, however, set in motion a domino effect of catastrophes (which I will leave you to discover) that finally ends with Chen arranging for Dai Jai to be smuggled to “safety” in China. You don’t have to be a serious student of history to realize that he is being sent to the Cultural Revolution, not the most welcoming place for the offspring of wealthy merchant families.

And then there is the “wager” of the novel’s title. To finance Dai Jai’s escape, Chen has had to resort to series of loans and is now having to make even more to make repayments (needless to say, the loans don’t come from conventional sources). Divorced from Dai Jai’s mother, Chen has also taken to gambling as his leisure activity — and that leads to occasional liaisons with the métisses (prostitutes) who are ever-present in the gambling dens.

He takes his latest “loan” to the Sun Wah Hotel in an attempt to multiply it and is immediately attracted to a métisse that Mrs. Ling has brought to the mah jong game. Lam extends the scene over many pages (and does that well) but it ends with a particularly expensive game with Chen and another player putting up substantial cash and Mrs. Ling betting the métisse. Chen’s luck holds and he leaves with both the cash and the girl: Jacqueline (of mixed race) has entered the novel and will join Chen at its centre for the remainder.

I have tried to choose examples for this review that illustrate what, for me, is the central construct of The Headmaster’s Wager. Percival Chen may be surrounded by a series of global catastrophes and atrocities, but he is a creature who is caught in their cracks. His survival depends on not choosing sides and nimbly keeping options open, but his more pressing daily concerns are his own family and the products of his own weaknesses — and those concerns are constantly exacerbated by developments in the bigger world around him. Continual adjustments (both legal and illegal) are required to keep the “crack” open — and even then the immediate pressures of family concern must be addressed.

The Headmaster’s Wager, as a result, is not a conventional novel about the Vietnam of the 1960s and 1970s; rather it is the story of what it took for a marginal (albeit wealthy) creature to survive in that milieu. The need to react to changing outside threats is always present and Chen is powerless to change them — his personal concerns and challenges only get more complex as all that takes place. Unfortunately, the big picture keeps getting bigger — and worse.

I have noted before that Canada seems to have developed a sub-genre of novels written by Canadians but set in the troubled south-east Asia of this period — Kim Thuy’s Ru, Kim Echlin’s The Disappeared and Camilla Gibb’s The Beauty of Humanity Movement are just a few that have been reviewed here. David Bergen’s The Time In Between also is part of the genre and won the 2005 Giller Prize — alas, that was pre-blog so there is no review here. While Lam’s novel explores a different aspect of the broader story, I didn’t find The Headmaster’s Wager to be significantly better than any of those cited above.

A final note. Lam is himself a former Giller winner, in 2006 for Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, his debut collection of linked short stories. This first novel has been much praised in Canadian media, in contrast to the lukewarm reception here. Part of that may well be my fault: I read The Headmaster’s Wager (and its account of Vietnam war atrocities) immediately following Elliot Perlman’s The Street Sweeper with its even more dramatic account of the atrocities of the Holocaust. My failure to completely engage with Lam’s novel might perhaps best be attributed to a case of short-term atrocity overload.

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16 Responses to “The Headmaster’s Wager, by Vincent Lam”

  1. Trevor Says:

    Hmmm, sounds like one to keep at arm’s length unless it makes the Giller shortlist, Kevin. However, I really need to reach into Lam’s backlist. Do you recommend one to start with?

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: You might want to google and check some other reviews, but I wouldn’t say you have to rush out and buy this one.

    Bloodletting etc is the entire backlist — and memory says that for me at least it was more interesting than this one. Lam is an emergency room doctor and the linked stories are set in a Toronto hospital. He carried it off quite well (it also got made into a television mini-series that by contrast I did not think worked at all).

  3. Trevor Says:

    Bloodletting etc is the entire backlist

    Hmmm, this Lam fellow isn’t the author I was thinking of then . . . Now, who was I thinking of?? Oh well!

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: Okay, you’ve got me scratching my head.

    Perhaps, from the immigrant lookiing back angle, M.G. Vassanji? He won the first Giller with The Book of Secrets and the 2003 Giller for The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (which also won the Shadow Giller that year in the only split decision in Shadow Giller history). His ancestral roots are African (although the ancestors are Indian, already once removed from their homeland) not Oriental.

    I’m pretty sure you’re not thinking of Rohinton Mistry, although if you haven’t read him you should.

    And if it is the Chinese angle that sparked your thoughts, it might be Wayson Choy, although I haven’t read any of his since I started blogging.

    Let me know if the light does go on.

  5. Trevor Says:

    Ha! You’re very good, Kevin. It was M.G. Vassanji, and I’ll bet the reason I was thinking of his was mainly because of Vikram Lall which, you know, is kind of like Vincent Lam (though that reason is a bit less impressive than the imigrant angle or that both won the Giller). Thanks for straightening me out!

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Glad to help out. Take care because I think Vassanji blows hot and cold — I very much liked the two Giller winners but was hard-pressed to even finish his most recent, The Assassin’s Song.

  7. David Says:

    I’ve been looking forward to your review of this, Kevin, as those reviews I’ve seen online in the Canadian press have been mixed – some calling it a near masterpiece, others being quite lukewarm. The UK edition is due out next month so I might give it a go then, but having just read one of that sub-genre of Canadian novels set in Vietnam (Kyo Maclear’s ‘Stray Love’) I’m not in a particular hurry to read another just yet.

    Interesting to read your opinion of Vassanji – the only one of his I’ve read is ‘Vikram Lal’ which I enjoyed, though I remember it took me forever to read. I like the sound of the one he has coming out later this year (‘The Magic of Saida’) so hopefully it’ll be one of his good ones.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    David: I should confess that this review is a few days late because the book took me longer than expected to read — it turned into one of those novels that I could only take to in 50 to 60 page chunks, which is unusual for me. I’ve heard about Stray Love but was planning on passing on it unless it makes the Giller longlist.

    As for Vassanji, I find it is the same thing that both makes his books good, or bad, if that isn’t too confusing. He is always very dense — when that works, it makes for a slow read but a rewarding one. When it doesn’t, the whole process is frustrating. And I certainly will be giving the new one a read when it comes out.

    • David Says:

      ‘Stray Love’ is good but not really a must-read-now, so you’re probably right to wait and see if it makes the Giller longlist. I found it a frustrating read myself – the story, themes and characters are all nicely developed and I really enjoyed those aspects of the novel, but Maclear spoils it all with a shocking lack of research – she has a British narrator living in London (he goes to Vietnam halfway through the novel) who speaks like a North American: ‘sidewalk’, ‘fire truck’, ‘candy’, ‘closet’, ‘the Fall’ and many more errors like that litter almost every page, and she also has a poor understanding of how British schools work. It’s a shame as otherwise it was very much my kind of book.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Isn’t it interesting how little “errors” like that start to become ever more apparent when you find a novel somewhat frustrating?

        I have to admit that I find the sub-genre a challenge (I wasn’t very impressed with Ru either a few months ago, although it had its moments — I’d take it over the Lam if forced to make a choice) which is part of the reason I was reluctant to pick up the Maclear now.

  9. anokatony Says:

    I can well understand a ‘short term atrocity overload’ when reading modern fiction. Maybe your next book should be ‘Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm’.

  10. sshaver Says:

    Poisonous wars cast a long shadow. Decades from now, there will be troubling novels about Iraq, Afghanistan….

  11. Max Cairnduff Says:

    There is a definite genre here, which is interesting.

    The notion of looking not at the big events, but rather at the lives of those who have to live among such events is rather a nice one. The cars quote too is nicely observed.

    Overall though it doesn’t seem to have quite persuaded you. I must admit it actually sounds a lot more interesting to me than The Street Sweeper, but that may be because I’m more attracted to novels about small people than I am to ones about large events.

    Checking online I see this clocks in at around 422 pages. That sounds too many for the topic. Does he just take a bit too long about it all?

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    My hypothesis is that the genre is fuelled by second (or even third) generation people with considerable talent who want to capture the stories of their parents and grandparents. Since these original emigrants were “ordinary” people, those secondary observations of survival are the stories they have to tell — and let’s face it for several generations a lot of “ordinary” Vietnamese have simply being doing their best to avoid whatever conflict was currently going on.

    You are right, it didn’t quite persuade me. I think Lam’s desire to tell a complete story led to continuing too many plot lines that a critical editor might have suggested could be dropped. They certainly slowed the book down and I would probably have been more impressed if it was 100 pages shorter.

  13. Lisa Hill Says:

    It sounds interesting, but yes, I’m a bit tired of 400+ page novels.

    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      I don’t mind long novels, but they need both characters and story to be able to justify the length — and I am afraid this one did not. A year after reading, I remember some of the set pieces well but the central themes have faded.

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