“The Headmaster’s Wager,” by Vincent Lam
The book first. The physical book, I mean, which is a splendid volume published by Anchor Canada. The cover is semi-rigid with an evocative photo, nothing particular. But the paper, oh the paper is really outstanding, with a Fabriano-like touch, and cut not in a standard way, each page a sharp straight line, but like the ancient books that showed an amazing ripple on the borders of the pages, son of a human imprecision.
So, the impression is to read an old book of the 1920s.
I hear the chorus of uneducated people that immediately say that what is significant is the content, the whole content, and nothing but the content, neither the quality of the paper, nor the presentation. I strongly disagree. I already wrote about form and substance in my blog, and I don’t want to reiterate my thought. But I love my paper books and even though I understand the terrific business power of the e-books and the space they are gaining in the market; even though someone is trying to convince me that a chilling, bloodcurdling white paper cut by a machine without passion and heart is good enough; well, I prefer the pleasure to turn over the pages affectionately holding my book and feeling a Fabriano familiar feel. That’s all I have to say about that (Forrest Gump said).
A second point about this book: Hung Der brought me it from Canada as a kind gift. Hung Der—same age of mine, same athletics performances, we both ran the 100 metres in 11 seconds—is a doctor and lives in Toronto. He is a great Chinese-Canadian writer with a strong voice. Furthermore, he has a very exciting story to tell, the story of his life. He is one of the “paper sons” who moved from China to Canada following the footprints of some parents or grandparents. Hung moved from Mook Keu, or Wooden Bridge, a village in Hoiping, a county in the hinterland of the Pearl River Delta, to reach his grandfather in Buffalo Narrows, a northern village in Northern Saskatchewan, Canada.
Just by reading this preamble, you realize that my friend Hung has a potential masterpiece in hand, a wonderful account that touches China, Hong Kong and Canada, the catching story of a far family, and incredible issues about streams of expats, identity, love, and nostalgia.
Dear Hung, please, on behalf of the Beyond-thirty-nine community: go on, and finish your book. We are waiting for your great work.
Last but not least, here it comes “The Headmaster’s Wager,” which has a physical aspect now and an origin, a past, and not only a virtual soul. Why Hung did bring me just this book, I wonder? Ok, I’ll make my review hereinafter, but I’d like to think that the deep reason of this gift is that the novel describes a Chinese expat, his character, his feelings, in a superb, unique way. I don’t remember another book so perfect, yes, perfect, in portraying a Chinese person—not using adjectives but a complex and surprising plot; not using clichés but the simple reactions of Percival (it is the western name of the main character, Chien Pie Sou, the headmaster) when he faces people, minute or historical events, the changes of his perspectives.
Not surprisingly, Vincent Tam, the young author, is from the expatriate Chinese community of Vietnam and lives in Toronto. His book is mainly set in Cholon, a suburb of Saigon, during the end of the 60s and the beginning of the 70s, so during the Vietnam War.
The story is about a Chinese young boy who moves from China to Hong Kong and then to Saigon during the Second World War, following the footprints of his father who searched for a “Gold Mountain” out of China and finally built a rich house just in Cholon.
Chien Pie Sou becomes a trader like his father and then the headmaster of a successful local English school. His life crosses various scenarios, the poverty in inland China, the dynamism of Hong Kong and the sudden, brutal Japan occupation, the mirage of Vietnam and again the effects of its occupation by the Japanese, the entire Vietnam War, the Americans’ defeat and then the Vietcong’s persecution. In the background, impending, looming, the development of China history and the Cultural Revolution.
Is it a historical book? Yes, in the right sense. It is a novel that uses real historical events and facts to assemble catching scenes and draw personal processes of change. From this point of view, it is a well educative book. It is deep and useful like a Shakespearean tragedy. It is violent indeed since history is violent.
It is also a love story, an interesting one, where different issues like racism, diffidence, and stereotypes play a great role.
It is a story about friendship and about the relationship between fathers and sons too; and also about men and wives and lovers. Moreover, the concept of family, the difficulty to be an expat and the impossibility to be focused only on business, as if the business were a free world, an impartial heaven, and the even dangerous pride to be Chinese, each one of these aspects is well expressed, put into words.
Just to say “The Headmaster’s Wager” has many levels, many views, and it is a pleasure to read it. The writing craft is polite, essential, always controlled and effective, so fitting with the central character of the story, Percival. Vincent Lam doesn’t seek for special effects, but follows a linear construction that is easy and always compelling. The pace is slow at the beginning and then accelerates more and more as well as the growth of the plot. In the third part of the novel, there are several turns that surprisingly change the frame of reference.
The headmaster impressed me. I’m not talking about a nice, pleasant person. Vincent Lam draws Chien Pie Sou (or Percival) without mercy of subjection. The headmaster is cool, arrogant, and racist; even shortsighted and stupid, sometimes. But his description throughout the account is magical, sculpted with the same coolness of Percival himself as if there was a perfect coincidence between the tool and the object, the hammer and the statue. Yes, this coherence is remarkable.
Many chapters are extraordinary, the one about the 1968 Tet offensive, for instance, seen by Percival’s eyes.
Another point of strength is Vincent Lam’s ability to underline the differences among Chinese, Japanese, French, American and Vietnamese people—all that without writing an essay, of course, and without uttering slanderous opinions. With only one or two phrases the distinctive natures of each country are delivered to the reader and linger over the story. It is not possible to speak about Vietnam of the 60s without describing the French atmosphere there, for instance, and its lack of glue. And it is not possible to speak about the Vietnam War without explaining Americans’ superiority complex and arrogance.
Just to be a little bit pedants, the profiles of women are not so strong as the men’s ones are—but it is pardonable because of the author’s young age.
What is the lesson of the story?
I guess “Your character is your destiny” is a good key of the reading. Despite all the great events that can occur, is our character that shapes alternatives and choices. Percival’s story is emblematic.
In conclusion, I cannot say “The Headmaster’s Wager” is a masterpiece—only time can—but I’m sure it is a gem. And I recommend it to you; if you love Asia and good literature, of course.
Thank you, Hung, for the precious gift.