The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
”The soil in this country is red from all the blood that is soaked into the earth. When each war ends, another soon begins. The Japanese, the French, the Americans, someone else in the future, so what does it matter what they say in Paris? The land itself bleeds.”
World War Two came early to Shanghai. In 1937, during the Battle of Shanghai, the Japanese invade and occupy Shanghai. They stay until the end of the war. Percival Chen A.K.A. Chen Pie Sou made his way to Hong Kong where he could have some semblance of a normal life until the Japanese invade there as well in 1941.
The Japanese prove to be brutal conquerors.
He and his young bride, the lovely, spoiled, ambitious Cecilia escape to his father’s rice trading firm in Vietnam. The Japanese are there as well, but kept the Vichy French in place as a puppet government. Things are marginally better. The Japanese execute people on a routine basis, food is scarce, and the country is fracturing into all kinds of splinter groups with differing political objectives. One thing that everyone agrees on, they hate the money grubbing, arrogant Chinese.
In 1946 the Viet Nimh go to war with France in what is called The First Indochina War. Non-communists fought with communists. Stalinists purge Trotskyists. Every time one of the political factions gain control tens of thousands of people die. New alliances are formed and finally it becomes the Viet Cong and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam fighting for power.
Here come the Americans. It is 1965.
The Soviet Union, The Chinese, and now The Americans are all now adding fuel to the fire in Vietnam. There are victims, so many victims. There are plenty of deaths, but some die fast and some die slow.
”The car’s headlights arced over the flashing legs of the fragile street girls, their bright-colored butterfly dresses,lipstick slashes on their tired grandmother mouths.”
Through all this Percival has dicey moments, after all he is a foreigner in the middle of conflict and is suspected by everyone. He decides to open a school and when the Americans arrive he decides that school needs to focus on teaching Vietnamese English. His son Dai Jai, in a moment of youthful indiscretion, holds a protest that puts him on a dangerous list. Percival enlists the help of the diabolically well connected Mak (a teacher at his school) to spirit his son out of the country to China.
The book explores the difficulties of parents in a time of war. The world has been torn apart leaving very few untouched by the detrimental effects of all out war. Many parents all across Europe and Asia, from the 1930s on, have had to make difficult decisions about their children. Are they safer with us or are they safer elsewhere and where is safe? It nearly kills Percival to be separated from his son, but he convinces himself that he has a better chance in China than in jail or in a uniform in Vietnam. The climate in Vietnam is not safe for anyone.
An Ancient Chinese tradition for giving gifts that work equally well for passing bribes.
Percival has become an expert at bribing (special red envelopes) to an ever changing revolving door of government officials. As the Americans need more and more translators he begins to routinely double the tuition for his school. He needs the money to support not only the bribes, but his growing gambling habit and his insatiable desire for young women. ”Although a man could be selfish in seduction, he must be considerate in pleasure.”
And then he wins Jacqueline in a game of Mahjong.
”He had only sought a girl for a night.”
She was intoxicating. Her smell. The way she looked at him.
”There was the rising scent of wilted jasmine flowers and burned rice in the bottom of pots. A flashbulb of lightning burst close by, and thunder chased it. Rain surged through tree leaves, reddened the roof tiles like fresh blood. Water rippled over the curved clay, spilled to the terrace below, flooded the gutters and coursed along the street of men and women huddled in thin plastic ponchos. It fell from the top of the window and splashed on the sill, sprinkling Percival and Jacqueline.”
For the moment it was as if they had been anointed by the universe.
It is always amazing the number of obstacles that are flung in the path of love. There are the normal difficulties, but for Percival there seem to be a growing number of issues that threaten to separate him from what he is beginning to believe may very well be the love of his life. His wife Cecilia is chasing after wealthy men and long ago divorced him to facility the chasing. The problem is Percival is doing business with those pesky, moralistic, Americans. He has started to rely more and more on his friend Wak to manage the school as he spends more and more time pursuing his pleasures. Now it is fine for the headmaster of a prestigious English School (he did oversell his qualification and his education level) to gamble, to drink too much, to fornicate with young ladies at a nightly rate, but for him to take such a young mistress, well that is going over the line.
Love equals risk. Love in a war zone equals megaton risk.
Percival is first and foremost a gambler, a gambler that has relied on a abundance of good luck his whole life. He will make a wager with the universe once again and hope that the right Mahjong tiles continue to find his fingers.
Pre-1960s mahjong tiles.
Monks are lighting themselves on fire.
”He did not cry out at first, but only hunched forward, the contours of his body and robe all softened by the violent caress of undulating fire. Flame dances as if part of the saffron garment, and the seated man’s mouth was a black hole within his melting face. Somewhere within, the throat shrieked, gave agonized testimony. The color of the fire and the fabric were one, until the fabric darkened to char. The voice was silenced and then there was only the sound of fire like water, like lapping waves.”
Things get much more complicated as he finds out that people he trusts aren’t exactly who he thought they were. He has been riding a board, standing up in fact, and been able to maneuver every new swell even with a constant changing of the political weather.
And then the Americans leave.
The Americans leave behind their allies, hundreds of half breed kids most of whom are slaughtered by the Communists or allowed to starve.
Percival’s ability to survive will be tested once again. He has a son with Jacqueline and once again he has to make a decision on how best to protect a son.
I’ve never read anything about Vietnam from such a unique perspective. A Chinese man equally discriminated against by everyone; and yet, able to become indispensable to each new administration running the country. There are certainly overtones of Graham Greene in this novel. The intrigue, the tribulations of a foreigner in a destabilizing country, the espionage, the lust/love of the exotic, and the well meaning, but clueless Americans reminded me of The Quiet American. Vincent Lam spins all of these aspects into such a delicate web of interlacing subterfuges that I found myself completely ensnared in his plot. I marveled at the ability of anyone to survive under the constant threat of shifting alliances, the debilitating specter of paranoia, and the constant weighing of short term happiness against a life time of what ifs.
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