Excerpt from The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Headmaster's Wager

A Novel

by Vincent Lam

The Headmaster's Wager
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2012, 416 pages
    May 2013, 448 pages

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They ate. Their chopsticks and spoons clicked on the bowls. Each regarded the square as if they had never before seen it, as if just noticing the handsome post office that the French had built, which now was also an army office. Three Buddhist monks with iron begging bowls stood in the shadow of St. Francis Xavier, the Catholic church that was famous for providing sanctuary to Ngo Dinh Diem, the former president of Vietnam, and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, during the 1963 coup. After finishing his noodles, Percival sipped his coffee, and selected a piece of cut papaya using his chopsticks. He aimed for an understanding tone, saying, “Teacher Mak tells me she is very pretty.” He lifted the fruit with great care, for too much pressure with the chopsticks would slice it in half. “But your love is improper.” He should have called it something smaller, rather than love, but the word had already escaped. Percival slipped the papaya into his mouth and turned his eyes to the monks, waiting for his son’s reply. There was the one- eyed monk who begged at the school almost every day. The kitchen staff knew that he and his brothers were to be fed, even if they had to go out and buy more food. It was the headmaster’s standing order. On those steps, Percival remembered, he had seen the Ngo brothers surrender themselves to the custody of army officers. They had agreed to safe passage, an exile in America. They had set off for Tan Son Nhut Airport within the protection of a green armored troop carrier. On the way there, the newspapers reported, the soldiers stopped the vehicle at a railroad crossing and shot them both in the head.

“Teacher Mak has nothing better to do than to be your spy?” said Dai Jai, his voice starting bold but tapering off.

“That is a double disrespect— to your teacher and to your father.”

“Forgive me, ba,” said Dai Jai, his eyes down again. “Also, you know my rule, that school staff must not have affairs with students.” Percival himself kept to the rule despite occasional temptation. As Mak often reminded him, there was no need to give anyone in Saigon even a flimsy pretext to shut them down.

“But I am not—”

“You are the headmaster’s son. And you are Chinese. Don’t you know the shame of my father’s second marriage? Let me tell you of Chen Kai’s humiliation—”

“I know about Ba Hai, and yes, her cruelty. You have told—”

“And I will tell you again, until you learn its lesson! Ba Hai was very beautiful. Did that save my father? An Annamese woman will offer you her sweetness, and then turn to sell it to someone else.”

Percival knew the pull that Dai Jai must feel. The girls of this country had a supple, easy sensuality. It would be a different thing, anyways, if Dai Jai had been visiting an Annamese prostitute. Even a lovestruck boy would one day realize that she had other customers. But this was dangerous, an infatuation with a student. A boy could confuse his body’s desires for love. Percival saw that Dai Jai had stopped eating, his spoon clenched in his fist, his anger bundled in his shoulders. “You can’t trust the pleasure of an Annamese.”

“You know that pleasure well,” mumbled Dai Jai. “At least I don’t pay for it.”

Percival slammed his coffee into the table. The glass shattered. Brown liquid sprayed across the white linen tablecloth, the fruit, the porcelain, and his own bare arm. He stood, and turned his back on his son to face the square, as if it would provide a solution to this conflict. Peasants pushed carts with fish and produce to market. Sinewy cyclo men were perched high like three- wheeled grasshoppers, either waiting for fares or pedalling along, their thin shirts transparent with sweat. Coffee trickled down Percival’s arm, over his wrist, and down his fingers, which he pressed flat on the hot marble of the balustrade.

Excerpted from The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam. Copyright © 2012 by Vincent Lam. Excerpted by permission of Hogarth Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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