The Headmaster’s Wager
Percival Chen is the Chinese headmaster of an English-language school in Cholon, Vietnam, in the 1960s; he has run the school for years in what used to be his father’s rice warehouses, and he’s become a mostly respected member of the expatriate community. He has achieved much toward his primary goal of being rich and influential, and he has the time and funds to spend gambling, chasing women, and buying off pesky government officials. He remains willfully ignorant of the changing political climate, though, making it increasingly difficult for his right-hand man, Teacher Mak, to assist Percival in matters both political and personal.
Mak and Percival survived the French-Vietnamese conflict together, during which they bonded like brothers. Mak’s assistance in obtaining food, permits, and political favors over the years lulled Percival into an unquestioning acceptance of Mak’s activities. Percival’s goals, beyond the mercenary, include marrying his rebellious teenaged son, Dai Jai, to a Chinese girl, rather than the Annamese (Vietnamese) student he loves. As the Vietnamese start cracking down on foreigners, Percival’s pro-Chinese sympathies pull him, his son, and his ex-wife Cecilia, into a maelstrom of conflict from which no amount of money can set him free.
This look at the Vietnam Conflict, from the eyes of a self-involved, perhaps-naïve, Chinese businessman, exposes the politics of the U.S., Europe, and Vietnam, in a unique way; add a beautiful French-Vietnamese young woman into the mix, and the volatility increases even more. Readers will be alternately fascinated and repelled by the beauty of Vietnam and the terrible suffering of its people at the hands of calculating military and mercenary leaders. Giller Prize-winner Lam’s love story, in which family becomes all, at any price, presents a stark contrast to the realistically rendered politics and violence of the international struggle for power in Vietnam.