Rim Kin: សូផាត (Sophat)
This was the first published Cambodian novel, though it was actually published in Saigon, where it was cheaper to publish. It had considerable success in Cambodia, telling a tale of love and loss. Suon is an official in Sisophon. While there, he meets Soya, an orphan woman who had been brought up by people in her village after her parents’ untimely deaths. They have an affair and she becomes pregnant. However, Suon is eager to return to Phnom Penh and, when he does get the call, he declines to take Soya, as he knows that his mother has another marriage planned for him. However, he pretends to Soya that he will send for her and gives her an expensive ring. She never hears from him again. She gives birth to a boy – Sophat – and, when she learns that Suon has married someone else, she is overcome with grief, collapses and dies soon afterwards. Sophat is initially brought up by the villagers and then, when he is eight, he is sent to the monastery, where he becomes an obedient and intelligent novice.
When he is twelve, Sophat asks his master to go to Phnom Penh to try and find his father. After some hesitation, the master agrees and gives him some money to get a bus and the name of a contact who will put him up. When he gets there and finds the monastery where his master’s contact is, no-one seems to know this person but a kindly monk agrees to put him up, in return for some work, which Sophat gladly accepts. This works well. One day, he hears a commotion and sees a group of older boys bullying a younger boy. Sophat intervenes and rescues the younger boy, though the servants of these older, richer boys, intervene and beat up Sophat. He is rescued and Narin, the younger boy, takes him to meet his father, Athipadey Séna. Narin, who is a lonely child, persuades his father that Sophat should lodge with them and the two boys become friends. Sophat grows up in the household and is educated along with Narin.
As he grows up, he becomes a very handsome boy and attracts the attention of the young women in the household. Man Yan, the niece of Athipadey Séna who had first seen Sophat attacked and had called for help, is very much attracted to him and Sophat is attracted to her. They become friends. However, Man Yan is not the only woman attracted to him and, one evening, Ouri, the daughter of neighbours, boldly enters his room. He immediately sends her away but Man Yan has seen her and assumes that the two are having an affair. As a result, she refuses to speak to Sophat and avoids him. He is so concerned that he has offended her somehow that he secretly leaves the house, leaving a letter, and heads off to the country. The family are so upset that they get the police to investigate. When the police find the body of a young man, drowned and bloated, it is assumed that it is Sophat.
Of course, we know that the body is not that of Sophat and we follow his travels in the country. The rest of the novel tells how the lovers are, by strange coincidences, reunited, again separated, again reunited and again separated. Rim Kin keeps us guessing till the end as to whether the couple will be reunited in life or in death and whether Sophat will find his father. It is a fairly simple novel, and conventional by our standards but, for the first novel of a country, a very creditable attempt and very readable. Sadly, though, if you do not read Khmer or French, you will not be able to read it.
First published in 1942 by Man-sanh,Saigon
No English translation
Published in French as Sophat by L’Harmattan in 1994
Translated by Gérard Groussin