Vincent Lam is a busy man. He is an emergency physician, which I can imagine leaves you little free time. Despite this, Lam is a writer. And I am told by many websites punctuated by a mysterious .ca suffix that he is a literary A-lister in his native Canada, due in large part to his award-winning 2006 debut short story collection Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures.
To that list of accomplishments he can add a novel, The Headmaster’s Wager, a long (so very, very long) tale of deceit, politics, and identity set in wartime Saigon. At the center of it all is Percival Chen (born Chen Pie Sou), a Chinese immigrant proud of his heritage and disdainful of his Vietnamese surroundings. Chen is the headmaster of a English academy in Saigon—useful to the Americans—and to his knowledge well-connected and shrewd enough to live a life beyond the privilege afforded to a regular school administrator.
But when the Vietnamese government mandates—by way of a rather intimidating letter delivered by government officials—that all schools must teach Vietnamese, including the English academy, the fallout tests both Chen’s contacts and his resolve. To make matters worse, Chen’s son, Dai Jai, made a powerful statement in school about the new policy (Dai Jai is eager to earn his father’s respect by way of casually dismissing Vietnamese culture and proclaiming the superiority of his own heritage, natch), and is soon smuggled to China (just in time for the Cultural Revolution!). Continue reading