Drawn across the arc of history that sees Vietnam from Japanese occupation to the twilight of civil war, Vincent Lam’s Governor General Award-nominated The Headmaster’s Wager (2012) settles on the Chinese expat community of Cholon, where Percival Chen is headmaster of a prestigious English academy. Sensual, appetitive, compulsive, Chen wagers his way through the complexities of a war-driven political intrigue he only dimly understands, but which threatens incrementally to strip him of everything he holds dear: family, lover, wealth. Chen is the archetypal naïf (not anti- but unhero), and through his insider/outsider eyes Lam crafts a rare and rawly personal account of the horrors and beauty of war-raddled Vietnam.
The Headmaster’s Wager, Lam says in an interview, is the book he has wanted to write since becoming a writer. His parents were born into the Chinese subculture of Vietnam his fictional characters inhabit; time and place here are the stuff of his childhood stories. In the end, however, the events we read are fiction: the actual stories didn’t work.
“There’s this weird thing where to actually get to the emotional truth of that time — in that particular community — it was necessary to be fictional.”
If fiction was necessary, however, so too was historical plausibility: Lam’s research ranged across memoirs, political analysis and war novels. Among these last, Vietnamese soldier Bao Ninh’s insider account, the novel-memoir The Sorrow of War (1990) stood above the more known American works — Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (1955), Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato (1979) — “both for its utter naked honesty and its understanding of what was actually happening.”
The quotidiana of war — torture, rape, murder — has little to do with politics or ideology, and fashioning history into fictional narrative proved painful and tiring.
“It turns out you can find lots of documentation on the bad things that people did. So the research was exhausting. And then to write it, of course, you have to go in there. So I would have to go in there every day writing, for instance, the torture scenes. From a technical point of view, there’s such a delicate balance between shying away and showing too much. If you show too much, then it feels gratuitous. But it’s also very easy to not show enough, and then it feels as if you’re not being honest.”
To exquisite atrocity, Lam adds exquisite luxury — rich banquets, lingering eroticism.
Both forms presented a challenge: “I spent a lot of time trying to calibrate the balance between the violent scenes and the sex scenes,” says Lam. “And those scenes were probably the most work, because I edited them again and again to try to get what I thought was the right balance.” Sex and food are offerings for the reader, but also ultimately consolation to the novelist — beauty offers respite from the horrors of writing war.
Family narrative absorbed in childhood provided the rough workings of The Headmaster’s Wager, but in a sense the process of research and writing — of fictive remembering — has for Lam reared that body of story into adulthood, into a present and personal clarity.
“I understand that time period with much finer resolution. Now we live in the digital age, and that’s the kind of resolution I mean. Sharp detail. The core of emotions I have about those stories are the same, but I understand their nuances and their twists and turns, and I understand those emotions in far greater detail, because I spent a long time with the history, and then with my own book. So all those things become very sharp in their colours and their details. And yet overall, the emotional arc is the same. But now I know the contours of that whole emotional sculpture much more intricately than I did.”