” All his emotions—tenderness and fury, betrayal and desire—were at the surface, equally available. He did not know which ones to choose, felt love and hatred all within reach. ” (Part III Ch.23, p.336)
The Headmaster’s Wager follows the conventional historical fiction arc of family events being dimly influenced by the society simmering with uncertainty and threat in the background. The book starts off somewhat sluggishly, briefing on the necessary biographical details and political context on which the story is built. It weaves a narrative arch from the prospective of its protagonist, Percival Chen, the titular headmaster, beginning in pre-Revolutionary mainland China to Hong Kong in the face of Japanese imperialism, to Vietnam under the French and Japanese, through American occupation and finally the North Vietnamese victory. About two-thirds of the book focuses on events take place in Vietnam.
Did it matter that he had prayed to the ancient spirits to save the boy, when Dai Jai was already a pawn in a larger game? Percival tried to recall if he had consulted the ghosts before sending Dai Jai backto the motherland. He felt his anger toward Mak leaching out of him, replaced by his disgust with himself. (Part III Ch.23, p.328)
In 1960s Vietnam, Percival Chen is the headmaster of a successful English language academy. An astute businessman, he takes advantage of the opportunities entailed by war, providing certified translators for the American army. Percival clings to his Chinese identity and sustains his rigid Chinese patriotism through all of the political conflicts. He lives in a community of Chinese expatriates, remaining disengaged and indifferent about Vietnamese affairs—until his son, unaware of the rising Vietnamese nationalism, parrots the love for China and gets in trouble with the authority. In the face of a new regime, where arrests and assassination are rife, Percival has to exhaust all his channels, curry favors with the right people to insure his son’s safety. He sends him to China to save him from being drafted into the Vietnamese army only to realize that he is trapped in the horrors of the Cultural Revolution.
Even with Mak, Percival did not reveal his doubts and emotions. After all, he depended upon Mak and did not want him to have the power of knowing everything. Theirs was a relationship of trust, not of intimacy. Jacqueline had no other connection to his life, and so Percival soon found that he could tell her everything. (Part II Ch.11, p.160)
In the absence of his son, Percival finds consolation in Jacqueline, a French-Vietnamese woman with whom he falls in love. He also has a foil in his compatriot Mak, who despite his nefarious connections, receives Percival’s blind trust. He calculates his wagers on the side of communism. So the cruelty of the conflict and cultural factions are just the novel’s backdrop. Pt against it is a character who struggles to do better by his son than his father did by him, but tragically fails, only to be redeemed in his sacrifice for his grandson. Throughout the book he is driven by worldly desire (money and lust), but it’s love he craves.
Despite his indifference to politics, the complexities of war and the clash of cultural clash encroach further into his world. Even the people in his close circle are not what they appear to be. When he finally confronts what he refuses to see, he faces the biggest wager in his life. Percival’s choices are emblematic of the Vietnamese conflict. His choices always seem to be the best idea at the time, and are only revealed as disastrous through the lens of history. The novel, in a way, attempts to chronicle the breakdown of a life built around a metaphorical wall against assimilation. It also captures the intricate survival tactics required of aliens afloat in a country of fractured allegiances.
441 pp. Hogarth. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]