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Fate works in mysterious ways in classic Khmer love story ‘Sophat’

Review by Say Tola / Khmer Times Share:
Rim Kin wrote a Khmer novel named Sophat. KT/Srey Kumneth

The novel Sophat was written by Rim Kin in 1938 but not published until 1942 due to a lack of publishing facilities in Cambodia at that time.

The book depicts both the repression endured by Cambodian women at that time and the ripple effects that this treatment could have on all of society.

Girls and young women who became pregnant outside of marriage were made to feel ashamed. Like the mother of this story’s title character, they and their children were often abandoned, their existence denied.

This tale begins with the abandonment of a pregnant young woman by the well-to-do, high-ranking father of her unborn child, who goes to Phnom Penh for work. She is left to deliver her baby alone, without any support from relatives. Unable to care for the child, she leaves it with an orphanage. Before she leaves her son, she gives him a name: “Sophat.”

When she learns that her former sweetheart has left her for another woman, she is so utterly devastated by the betrayal that she soon falls ill and dies. Before she passes, however, she bequeaths to her son the ring her former sweetheart gave her.

At the tender age of 8, Sophat is sent to live in a pagoda. An industrious and well-behaved child, he gains the favour of the monks for his respectful attitude and moral behaviour.

When he is 12, Sophat asks the monks for permission to travel to Phnom Penh, where he hopes to find his long-lost father. A monk writes a letter of reference for Sophat asking that he be allowed to stay at Una Lom Pagoda in the city.

Sophat busies himself doing good works and soon befriends a boy who arranges for Sophat to leave the pagoda and come and live with him and his wealthy father. With a proper home to live in, he is better able to devote himself to his schoolwork and soon becomes a star pupil.

After graduating from high school, Sophat is keen to carry on studying, but the owner of the house, the father of his friend, wants him to stop studying and get a job. One day, Sophat leaves his ring in the bathroom, where it is found by Man Yan, the owner’s adopted daughter.

Man Yan is puzzled. How can a poor young man like Sophat afford jewellery? She takes it to her father. Seeing the ring, the father realises that it was once his, and that the young man is in fact his very own son.

Without telling Sophat what he knows, the father immediately changes his view and becomes supportive of his son’s ambitions, encouraging him to further his studies.

Soon, Sophat falls in love with Man Yan, but his sense of honour compels him to leave home; a man of humble origins such as himself, he believes, could never win the love of a girl of high birth such as Man Yan.

In fact, Man Yan is deeply in love with Sophat, but cannot express this to him because to do so would be unseemly for a woman. Eventually she becomes engaged to marry another man, but, unable to forget Sophat, and loving only him, she decides that to be honest and true she must commit suicide, which she promptly attempts to do by jumping into a river on her wedding day.

As it turns out, though, Sophat is by now living with a fisherman on that very river, and the two find each other again. Their love for each other is now recognised by their father, and the two are married lawfully and according to Khmer tradition.

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