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Why Is Percival Chen Of Vincent Lam’s The Headmaster’s Wager So Awful?

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Lam’s main character angered me so much that I found myself seeking a reason for his inclusion. I read The Headmaster’s Wager, all the while wondering why Lam had created such an abhorrent and consciously ignorant person, someone so bad they often marred what was an otherwise superb exploration of war.

It was as I wrote the conclusion of my review that I realised there might be more to it than what was on the surface. Yes, this sounds silly of me – we’re ‘meant’ to look for themes and reasons in literature and I’d forgotten to do so – but at the same time, Lam’s relentless writing of Percival as ignorant, his (Lam’s) seeming failure to grasp when the ignorance had become too much and that it was high time he gave his character an epiphany, suggested that there wasn’t to be any reason or theme.

But when I say ‘any reason or theme’, I mean only in the context of a life lesson for Percival; as I wrote my review it occurred to me that the character’s stupidity was really out of his hands.

When you look at the content and story of the book from any angle other than Percival himself, it becomes apparent that the reason Lam never lets his character learn to be a better person or gives him a shock that actually changes him, is that Lam needs to use Percival to detail what he, Lam, wants to detail.

At the very foundations, Percival’s stupidity, his failure to leave Vietnam, means that Lam can write about the horrors of the war from a fly-on-the-wall perspective. He doesn’t need to report it via a character’s purchase of a newspaper and he has no time limit during which he can explore what happened; because the ever-ignorant Percival fails to leave the country until the very last paragraph, Lam has 450 or so pages in which to discuss the Vietnam war. And surely first-hand knowledge, albeit of course somewhat fictional and an imagining, is better than a report from a far away country where everything is a lot less compelling because you know that in a moment the character is going to have tea, play tennis, and get back to their new life.

Percival stays at his school in an area that isn’t particularly poor but is invaded, both by refugees and the enemy troops. He therefore witnesses the atrocities of the soldiers towards the common people who were fighting to survive; at the same time his status and money allows Lam to also look at the more wealthy members of society as well as the foreigners – in the latter case both literal foreigners and the wives and mixed-race children of the often spineless foreigners who abandoned them.

So we are able to get more than a glimpse of the sordid reality of the common person as well as, thanks to Percival, the stupidity of the privileged. Of course in the case of this particular book, most of those with money leave as soon as they can – it is Percival that the focus is on.

Talking of ignorance, something that is always apparent is Lam’s wish to look at the role tradition plays in our lives. Here tradition has an extreme effect – Percival’s pride stops him aligning with people who may have helped him, his belief in the superiority of his heritage makes him think he is safe, his loyalty to the homeland he hasn’t seen for years leads him to send his son, ultimately, to his death, and his stubbornness, which isn’t quite tradition but is affected somewhat by it, leads to his poor decisions and his belief that bribes will always work. Would Percival have been less alien if Lam had written and published his book decades ago? Readers likely would have thought him stupid for not leaving Vietnam when he could, but his loyalty to his country and traditions would have been easier to understand. And whilst this isn’t to say that a reader nowadays isn’t going to understand it – they will – it is of course more frustrating for us. And I would say that is true no matter the reader’s own heritage and cultural background.

There are reasons, certainly, for Percival being such a bad character, but yet it is still difficult to spend the entire book with him, especially because his opinions and choices can at times, for their absurdity, detract from the story of war. However, the thought occurs – if Percival had left Vietnam at the start, an undeserving, awful, privileged man who was able to leave because of his riches, wouldn’t it be the case that he would be an anti-hero anyway? Once Lam created Percival and decided he wanted to detail Vietnam, it would have been difficult to back track on the character’s appeal to the reader.

And at the same time isn’t it also that it’s difficult to like Percival because he has chances and doesn’t take them? If so, what does that say of us? Are we thus in support of the idea that there is a priority line for escape? Are we upset that a person doesn’t take the chances given, thereby surely acting as Lam hoped we would, taking to heart the idea that chances shouldn’t be squandered? (Unless of course not taking a chance means helping others or the like, which of course didn’t happen in Percival’s case except with his son.)

That is something that needs to be remembered, too – Percival stayed to help his son. He didn’t see that it was almost hopeless because he still had the means, he believed, to rescue him. This fact of course looks at tradition and Percival’s personality in a good light. Where Percival’s father abandoned him, Percival won’t abandon his son. This is what can become lost amongst the rest of the themes.

It is likely that Percival gets away to America safely after the book, unless the boats the refugees ran to were a decoy. If Percival got away safely, what does that show? He has ruined lives, he has been a big part of the reason many are dead, and he still continues in his ignorance. Is Lam reminding us that money rules the world? And would a complete change in Percival’s personality have been realistic by this time? Even if you still hope Percival will see the light it would surely be a little grating if he had realised his mistakes, fully and truly, only after all that he had caused and after gaining the means to escape.

I believe that there are enough pointers for every reader to reach their own conclusion as to why Percival is the way he is, and I also think it’s possible that Lam wanted it to be that way. He surely has his own feelings on the matter, but they are included and revealed in such a way that the reader can differ if they want to. For me I think the fact that Percival’s remaining in Vietnam increases our view of the war is the reason I will hold to, but there are many and they are various enough to suit readers of every age, situation, and location.

What do you think?


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