Percival Chen is the headmaster of the most respected English school in Saigon. He is also a bon vivant, a compulsive gambler and an incorrigible womanizer. He is well accustomed to bribing a forever-changing list of government officials in order to maintain the elite status of the Percival Chen English Academy. Fiercely proud of his Chinese heritage, he is quick to spot the business opportunities rife in a divided country. He devotedly ignores all news of the fighting that swirls around him, choosing instead to read the faces of his opponents at high-stakes mahjong tables. But when his only son gets into trouble with the Vietnamese authorities, Percival faces the limits of his connections and wealth and is forced to send Dai Jai away. In the loneliness that follows, Percival finds solace in Jacqueline, a beautiful woman of mixed French and Vietnamese heritage, and Laing Jai, a son born to them on the eve of the Tet offensive. Percival’s new-found happiness is precarious, and as the complexities of war encroach further and further into his world, he must confront the tragedy of all he has refused to see.
A lot happened in this book, where to start? It took place over a few decades and even if a lot did not always happened to the character, then the world around him was re-shaped.
Percival is the principal of an English school. Is he a good guy? Well what is a good guy? He is kind (sort of), he cares about his family and tries to make their lives better. But at the same time he spends a lot of time gambling and whoring. But I would call him a good guy, a naive stupid man who is neither good or bad. Just human.
He leaves China when the Japanese comes. Then they come to Vietnam too (damn war is evil!). He marries, he has a son. He finds his father. The French, the Americans and later the Northern Army all fight over Vietnam (arghh I do not get communists! Fair, fair? There is nothing such as equal rights with them.) Yes this is a country that sees war, but it’s not always present. He manages to stay away from much of it. But we do get a taste of the brutalities too.
Other people we get to know is his son, his ex-wife, who was a sort of a harpy but I liked her. Teacher Mak, Percival’s mistress and many more. It’s not a happy book so all of these wont be happy in the end. I felt sorry of the country, and of the people, and all the metisse children. But war and shaping a new country is never easy. It’s bloody, horrible and disgusting.
I did come to realize that I know way too little of this era. Mostly cos what I know has been shaped through US eyes. And here we get the view of a Chinese man, who does not have it easy either as he is not liked either.
An interesting story
Paperback, 400 pages
Published April 2nd 2013 by Anchor Canada (first published April 24th 2012)