Manoa 16.1 (2004) 9-20
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An Interview with Soth Polin
Soth Polin was born in 1943 in Kompong Cham. He came from a middle-class, intellectual family, and grew up speaking both French and Khmer. Throughout his youth, he immersed himself in the classical literature of Cambodia and, at the same time, the literature and philosophy of the West. His first novel, A Meaningless Life, was strongly influenced by Nietzsche, Freud, and Sartre, as well as by Buddhism. It was an enormous success. Numerous novels, short stories, and philosophical tales followed, among them TheAdventurer, Whatever You Order Me...I Will Do It, and The Death of Love.
Soth Polin was part of an active community of writers before the Khmer Rouge takeover. In the late 1960 s, when he founded the newspaper and publishing house of Nokor Thom, he was a militant nationalist who was both anti-Sihanouk and anti-Communist. Through the publishing house, he supported the politics of Lon Nol before finally distancing himself and taking refuge in France in 1974 . He worked in Paris as a taxi driver, published a French-Khmer dictionary, and published his novel The Anarchist, written in French. Later he and his two sons moved to America.
This interview was conducted by telephone in September 2003 .
SM We've had so many interesting conversations before. You were telling me how you learned to read from your maternal great-grandfather, the poet Nou Kan. You were very young when he taught you Khmer...
SP I was four years old. He made me lift my arms up and around the top of my head. When each of my hands could reach the opposite ear, I was of the age of learning, and he began to teach me the Khmer alphabet: ka, kha, ko, kho, ngo. He thought I was intelligent; the other members of my family did not agree.
I was so young, but I remember when he left the province, moving from Kompong Cham to Phnom Penh. He became a member of Parliament. And so I began to write formal letters to him, helped by my mother. I was [End Page 9] about five or six. I would write things like "From here, I sing to you over there." I would say that I missed him very much and ask that if something I wrote was not appropriate for a letter, to pardon me.
He was the patriarch of the family. We were living in his house in Kompong Cham. It was a very big house, near the pagoda, and all the family members lived there. He was educated in the Buddhist monastery. Later he became the mandarin of the king. He had the title Oknha Vibol Reach Sena [Servant of the King] Nou Kan.
SM He was a very well-known poet.
SP Yes, he was the national poet. In 1942 , he received first prize for the Teav Ek, which is like the story of Tum Teav. He wrote it about thirty years after Som's Tum Teav.
I remember the flow of his poetry even now. What I read when I was a child was very powerful. I read his poems all day long. I loved very much the story Inao Bosbar, famous in Southeast Asia. I think he translated it from Thai, but he reinvented the story in his own style. I read that every day. I would sing his poems. For every one, I made a song. He was a great poet, you know. Even now, I am in love with his poems:
Anicha phka banan, klen khpong khpos
Loeu tae chhmuos, lous tae chhmieng, tieng tot toan
Sman bosbar, smeu bos bong, vong tevoan
Sthet choan, sthan chuor, chhar kama.
SM He was very prolific. He must have written every day.
SP My mother told me that after he retired from being a mandarin of the king, he wrote every night. He had passion—more than I do. Or maybe it was because he was richer. He could write without worrying about putting food on...