I’m 54 and remember the Vietnam War vividly. The monk dousing himself in gasoline, the girl running naked burned by napalm, the choppers, the wounded, the protesters, the Life magazine covers, the nightly news. Mine was a politically-minded family. I was never “diverted” from seeing the news, never given a storybook to look at instead of Life magazine. In college, in the the first Regan administration, I majored in political science and so studied Vietnam in depth along with the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the fall, return and fall of the Shah of Iran and the fear of the spread of Communism that fueled all of those. Mr X was part of my lingo and he wasn’t a bachelor on a game show. George Kennan, Foster Dulles, Alan Dulles. McGeorge Bundy, Robert ]McNamara–all were superheros or anti-heros, protagonists and antagonists–the black hat guys and the white hat guys–depending on the course. They were among the men responsible for us backing Saddam Hussein, Reza Pahlavi, Ho Chi Minh and others we claim to hate today.
I remember too, my mom’s cousin, the blonde haired, blue eyed boy next door, going off to Vietnam after 4 years of ROTC and coming home a disillusioned enlisted man, the single bar of a 2nd lieutenant left behind with a resigned commission. He couldn’t send more men to their deaths.
I’ve also lived in the rarefied atmosphere of expatriates in an oppressive country. Locals going along for better money or fighting against the occupying forces to make a statement. If you aren’t a host country national, you are an expat. It makes life weird.You are always on the inside looking out with the natives, the beggars, the small time politicians, the braggarts with despotic dreams looking in at you and wanting to hang on to your coattails. Begging to become a “been to” on a foreign aid scholarship to somewhere.
Percival Chen, the “Headmaster,” is the same. He is Chinese and landed in Vietnam–French/Japanese Indochina, the date dictating the prefix, as a young man fleeing the Japanese. His first marriage was contentious but produced his son, the true love of his life. It is this son who causes Percival to make deal after deal with the devil. It is this son who leads him on a path of desperation.
His second “wife,” though they do not really marry, is won in a card game. Well, he wins her so-called “introduction.” But he falls in love with her. It complicates things. A second son arrives and things become more complicated. But he loves her, loves the son. Even as he has told his first son to avoid mixed race Asian-European women, here he is in love with one. The contradiction torments him.
Throughout it all his English school wins a prized accolade with the Americans thanks to his ever-loyal and hardworking assistant Teacher Mak. Until the day that Mak cannot make things work out.
Interwoven are the key moments in 1950s–1970s Vietnamese history. The endless confusions of who is on which side. The changing loyalties, the idiocy of the diplomats, the unsuccessful surge to win the hearts and minds of the people away from Ho Chi Minh. This is a grand saga. Percival is either a masochist or a fool or both. But the twists and turns of this story will keep you glued to it. The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam