Ignorance is bliss until it isn’t.
Publisher: Hogarth (Random House)
First Published: 14th August 2012
Date Reviewed: 26th November 2013
It’s the 1960s and Percival Chen, a Chinaman, is living in Vietnam. He’s the founder of a successful language school but dislikes his adoptive country, remaining loyal to his homeland. As Vietnam turns to war and his son, Dai Jai’s, obedience to him leads to trouble, Percival sends his only child back to China where he will surely flourish. He is Chinese, he will be better off there. But Percival is ignorant of Mao’s Communism, of the darker side of debts as he continues to gamble, of how his continual bribes are seen by others, and as war and a changing Vietnam move ever closer his luck will not stay with him forever.
The Headmaster’s Wager is a fine book that shows off the goodness of tradition, the trouble of following tradition when it is no longer of use, and the awful war of Vietnam. Both frustrating and important, it illustrates how such a clash can be devastating.
First and foremost it would be prudent to discuss the frustrating aspect – Percival. Percival isn’t an anti-hero but he is certainly a character who is impossible to like. He is ignorant by choice, does not listen or care for reason, is impossibly dedicated to money beyond all else, and never really learns his lesson. That is something you should know before you begin the book as Percival is the main character and even the most important other characters are secondary. Percival gets away with a lot and ruins many lives, and he doesn’t even gain anything from it. Whilst the ending will not be explained here, it is unlikely to satisfy many people’s hopes for the character, especially given the meeting between Percival and violent rebel leaders.
If you can get past Percival’s lack of practising what he preaches, an epic historical account awaits you. Lam’s knowledge is evident as is his research and his story is both stunning for its detail and awful for its horror – and, of course, more horrific given his choice to spotlight such a careless person. The book spans from just as the Vietnam war was beginning up to its end as the north took over and renamed Saigon to Ho Chi Minh, so whilst a lot of time is understandably spent delving into Percival’s red packets and bedding women, there is still a lot of historical fact to be had. And Lam shows the plight of women – the female characters in this book do their best to teach Percival of the politics but at the end of the day they are dependent on the will of men to take them to safety.
This will is displayed openly for all to see. Escaping was easy for the Americans as they had interested parties back home, but when it came to the men’s Vietnamese lovers and mixed-race children, many promises were made but few kept. The poor are constantly studied – Lam includes an abominable scene in which starving children are put to death – and whilst China is not the focus for anyone but Percival and Dai Jai’s other relatives, Lam comments on the sad and ironic plight of the rich as Mao took over. Of the fate awaiting mixed-race children, the author is blunt.
Naturally the book includes a study, though minor, of the affect on the east of the conquering west. Percival’s English language school presents the biggest opportunity here, and its place in the story also highlights the way the staunchly patriotic Pervcival became a suspect due to his lack of cooperation when it was decided that every school should teach Vietnamese. This book is about Vietnam, but the perspective is that of the foreigner from start to finish. The Vietnamese get a small look in, but Lam’s study is one of the affects of the war on foreigners – Percival, the Americans, the mixed-race. Thus Lam gives a voice to sections of communities that are often forgotten or less noticed by reports, and by studying foreigners in Vietnam he is in many ways studying foreigners in other times and wars too.
The book is literary with few non-English phrases used. Those that are used are added naturally and the reader won’t be left wondering about meanings. The lack of languages other than English is far from convenient – it fits the plot and characters. Percival prefers English over Vietnamese, only knows so much of the second language, and everyone converses with what he would consider the superior English language. Then there is the fact that foreigners of various countries were going to understand each other better in English. In terms of the writing style it is easy to follow, including times where the narrative is heavy, which makes it a good choice for those wanting history without feeling daunted by the style of prose that often accompanies the subject. Lam’s medical background shows through a little too strongly at times – needles are injected into the ‘intravenous’ in every instance meaning that the author suddenly makes too much of an appearance in the book – and there are a few very modern western phrases that don’t suit the setting, but otherwise it is very good.
The Headmaster’s Wager is a fine book, it is simply the person of Percival that makes it seem to be not as good as it is, because whilst not everyone learns from their mistakes, Percival’s result in events that are so horrific it is hard not to feel that he got the equivalent of a mother’s telling off followed by a chocolate bar for pretending to be sorry. However, given that his inaction allows Lam to further explore the atrocities of the war, maybe thinking of the character is irrelevant.
I received this book for review from Random House.
December 3, 2013, 7:01 pm
This sounds like a very interesting book. Percival’s character might be hard to get past, but your description of the rest of the novel has me curious.