The Headmaster’s Wager, by Vincent Lam
Do people accuse you of being on one track, and one only? We have many positive words to describe this personality trait: persistent, ambitious, driven, firm, determined, driven… People who have this trait are often successful, much more so than those who wander about, floating on the most convenient current. But who is the happiest?In The Headmaster’s Wager, by Vincent Lam, Percival Chen longs for his father who stubbornly stays in foreign lands to reap a fortune, missing Percival’s youth and his own wife’s illness and death. Although Percival sees that his father lives to regret these actions, he himself falls into a similar trap.
Percival begins his life in pre-Communist China, in a time of such terrible poverty that he understands why money is so important to his father. Later, when the Japanese invade, he luckily gains the means to leave China, and believes he is especially lucky to be taking a beautiful young wife with him. He heads for the “gold mountain” of his father’s fortune, which has recently been named Vietnam.As single minded as his father, he changes and builds his father’s business. Not only does he relentlessly gamble with bigger and bigger business steps, he stubbornly refuses to see the value of the people in his new land. As the Vietnam war tragically affects his family, he remains steadfast. In a scene where he suddenly realizes he has been playing mah-jong with his son’s kidnapper, he continues to play, despite the tortures his son endured:
“As he lifted his glass, the rich cognac fragrance of old flowers filled Percival’s nostrils. Rising through his body came the impulse to lunge at Cho and seize him by the neck, to smash his head on the table, to smear the ivory tiles with blood… Percival’s fingers wrapped tight around the stem of his cognac glass, near to crushing it into shards. He would grind the cutting fragments into Cho’s eyes with his own bloody palm, and pummel the blind, shredded face with his fist. Instead, Percival sipped the amber from his glass… His mah-jong luck was strong tonight and he did not wish to waste it.”This novel is complex. We understand and empathise with Percival’s need to stay on track, but at the same time, feel squeamish that he is so compulsive. As far as literature therapy goes, this one could enlighten your path a little if you are one tracked yourself. If you’re among the more easy going, flexible types, this book might help you to understand someone who is relentlessly driven. But don’t expect them to read it.