by Friederike Knabe | 2/15/2014
" Sometimes in his dreams Chen Pie Sou returns to his childhood in Shantou, China, and to the day of his father's first departure for the "Gold Mountain" in Indochina. His father, Chen Kai, had tied a small good luck charm around his neck: a tiny rough lump of gold, found long ago by an ancestor. It symbolizes the promise of wealth and good fortune, left without inscription because the fortunes can take different forms for each wearer. Several times over the years the father returns with more money; the growing Chen Pie Sou ponders: "... Chen Kai had an empty space [within him] that needed to be filled, but [he] could not understand what must be obtained to satisfy that void and bring his father home [for good]." The grown Chen Pie Sou, now known as Percival Chen, having followed his father to Saigon and living more than comfortably in Cholon, the Chinese part of town, "felt the same void, all money and distractions, could not fill it..." His position as Headmaster of the Percival Chen English Academy, the prestigious English Language School he established in his father's house, seems to be a part-time distraction at best; his main occupation being that of a wheeler and dealer par excellence, a bon-vivant, a gambler, womanizer, and a powerful representative of Vietnam's wealthy Chinese minority. His good luck charm that has served him well is now tied around the neck of Dai Jai, his beloved son... With it Chen not only passes on a family symbol he instils in his son the pride he holds for their Chinese heritage and traditions.
THE HEADMASTER'S WAGER is Canadian Vincent Lam's eagerly awaited first novel, following the author's 2006 Scotia Bank Giller Prize for his story collection Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures. Inspired by his own family background and, in particular, his grandfather's life in Vietnam, Lam has created a powerful and absorbing story of love, loyalty and betrayal, violence and tenderness, self-importance and naÃ¯vetÃ© and, eventually, hope and redemption. Set against the politically turbulent times in nineteen sixties and seventies divided Vietnam , Lam confidently balances the private and intimate sphere of one man's family story with the depiction of changing realities affecting them. At one level, Chen, like others in the Chinese community, shows a somewhat naÃ¯ve belief that his influence will ensure successful negotiations with any new political power players, on another his unwavering belief in the influence in the family's ancestors on his and his son's behalf when Dai Jai attracts the attention of the Vietnamese "quiet police". More often than not, however, Chen relies on his colleague and friend, the teacher Mak, who, while Chinese but raised in Vietnam, is the complete opposite to Chen: quiet, reserved, without apparent vices. We learn about Chen's background and his friendship to Mak, in flashbacks. Lam gives us enough context to understand how events have shaped the two friends over time and opens a perspective on the Vietnam of the time that we have rarely seen or read about.
Lam always provides just enough detail to set the scene or build the drama to place events, such as the day of the first TET Offensive (1968), without moving outside of his narrative stream or his characters. The portrayal of the effect on civilians during that night could not have been more affecting. In the Offensive's aftermath the powers have shifted in Saigon and Chen's kind of gambles and bribes are less than successful and even ineffective. When another crisis concerning his son throws him off his routines, Percival has to call in all his favours and wager even more. His father's motto: "... never wager more than you can afford to lose. Leave yourself room to recover..." is profoundly tested. Will the lump of gold, the voice of the ancestors save them?
Percival Chen is not an easy character to like. He gets away with too much in his dealings; he can be too casual and insensitive. His ancestor worship, while plausibly conveyed, seems somewhat naÃ¯ve and at times like an excuse to stand on the sidelines of political and societal events, convinced that he can do business whatever the political system in Vietnam. At the same time, there is a kinder and gentler man underneath it all and this side of Percival is endearing and attracts sympathy when endangered. Lam touches on this side of Chen on and off in the earlier parts of the novel. Yet, it comes fully to light with the unexpected love for a beautiful woman and all that develops from then on in his life...
Vincent Lam's novel is written mostly in a detached tone, his protagonist's story told in the third person. The author also takes some time in the beginning, for some readers maybe too much, to carefully build his central characters and to describe the context in which Chen and they operate in Saigon. But once the scenarios are set and the primary characters have been fully introduced, the narrative tension rises and rises towards some extraordinary drama that remains unforgettable. I find it important not to even hint at some of its elements... other than to say, the patience in the beginning is richly rewarded as the story unfolds and moves towards a conclusion that is as logical within the story as it is likely surprising for the reader. "