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.