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from the November 2015 issue

The Anarchist

First published in 1980 and republished in 2011, l’Anarchiste has never earned Soth Polin the literary status in France merited by the quality of its prose, whose luminosity is reminiscent of the writings of Marguerite Duras and Albert Camus. The novel's failure to gain stronger traction with French literary circuits on its first publication might have resulted from its stark critique of French journalists who had taken a strong pro-Khmer Rouge position in their reporting during the 1970s, and its caricature of a French ethnographer. 

In his introduction to a second edition published in 2011, Patrick Deville writes that Soth Polin wanted to be known as a great writer in the French language. Soth Polin's singular voice, in both his Khmer and French works, draws on multiple influences, ranging from Khmer poetry and such novels as Nou Hach's Phka Srapon (Wilted Flower) to the works of the sixteenth-century poet Ronsard and Nietzsche.  

The first part of l’Anarchiste is based on Soth Polin’s Khmer novel, Chomtet Ot Asor (Pitiless Provocation)which had been banned in Cambodia on its publication in 1967 (making it wildly popular) and which he translated into French; it was accepted by his Parisian publisher on the condition he add to it. The excerpt included here comes from the second part of l’Anarchiste, written in Paris in three months from 1979 to 1980, after the end of the Khmer Rouge regime and his learning of the death of his own father.  

My Peugeot 504 crashed into the metal parapet separating us from the Seine, but instead of going through it and plunging into cold water, the car swerved to the left, just like an American Thunderbolt in the Pacific war banking on its wing.   I surrendered for my own safety, letting go of the clutch and the brakes, trying to get back on track.   No use. The car turned multiple somersaults on the recently paved street.   What was running through my mind in those seconds?  Nothing. Other than clinging to the steering wheel through sheer instinct, I felt no fear, nor any other emotion.  Utter emptiness.  But somewhere I made out a faint cry, “I’m affffraid…”  Then a second collision, harder than the first, pulverized the railing.  And we ended up below the overpass, up close to the water.

My fare, a young English girl, thrown from the car at the moment of the second impact, snapped her neck, disfigured her cherubic features.  Khmer poets of old compared the beauty of a woman’s breast to the persimmon fruit. Hers were crushed.  So young.  She can’t have been more than twenty.

She can’t have got anything out of life, then. Not much, anyhow.  What a terrible loss for mankind. It was like the destruction of a work of art. And who was to blame for this catastrophe?  A miserable Cambodian taxi driver in Paris.

As for me, I got out of the car miraculously unhurt.  However incredible it might seem, I escaped without a scratch.   I got off with a fright.  But what joy, what pain, that moment shook me out of my torpor, my prostration, my mental hibernation.  Shock forced me out of my melancholy cocoon. And that was tough enough.

Looking back, over the span of my life to this day, it has to be said that I am unbreakable, assisted by incredible luck. I’m the guy who wanted to die but who can’t stop living.

You suspected as much, didn’t you?  And now it’s you who’s the broken blossom.

It’s not fair, I’ll give you that.  But you know, that’s how I am, have always been; a cold fatality for others, the bringer of doom and disaster.  My rotten luck has contaminated everyone I’ve ever touched, everyone I’ve ever loved.  Scores of friends along the way have taken the rap for my own ill fate while I’ve thrived.

Do you realize that I’ve been the epitome of absolute evil from birth?  I’m sure of it.  I’m not my father’s son but the child of the devil. As a tiny baby who’d just opened its eyes to the light of the sun, all naked and pure, I’d already brought ill fortune down on my family.

That same day, my dad had an accident that nearly killed him.   I should tell you that I came into the world under the same star chart as my father, in the same year of the dragon, the same month of April, on the same day, Tuesday, and that was not good for him. In the popular belief of those days, such a child would always be crossing his father’s path.

I was born in Memay village, in Kompong Cham province, in a little wooden house, newly built, raised up on columns, with an unfinished verandah. It was an equally bad omen to live in an unfinished house. Who knows how many heads of households have died from such an oversight.  A hole in a pillar, if not filled in, could harbor a spiteful spirit.  A swarm of bees, clustering around the end of a beam that someone had forgotten to saw off, could bring death and desolation. On the night I was born, under the wavering gleams of a smoldering light fuelled by fish oil, my dad chased a huge moth out of the house. It had a revolting wing-pattern like a coat of gray paint, and had taken roost in a gaping hole in our verandah, a part not yet boarded over. He took a hard fall, and the right side of his chest banged up against a bamboo pillar. For weeks my father was delirious with fever, hovering between life and death.  My grandparents’ pitiful inheritance melted away like wax in hot sun, spent on buying him the best possible care.

I never recovered from that . . . . I can tell you, truthfully, that the man I thought the most of in this world was my father. But the more I loved him and the more I strived to help him out, the more heartbreak he suffered on my account.

All through my youth, especially after I moved to Phnom Penh and started college, my greatest desire, my overriding obsession, was to get my dad a new car. I’m from humble stock and spent my childhood in poverty. Most days all my parents, my brothers and I had to eat were a few bites of morning glory from our vegetable patch. And when we did luck into a few salted chops for a family meal, it was such a feast that my dad kept telling us, “The meat is better closer to the bone.”  Back then we lived in Tuol Tapuong district, smack dab in the middle of a big marshland next to a huge lake called Boeng Slaang, whose dark and unblemished waters fascinated me.  That’s where, after nearly drowning twice, I taught myself to swim.  At night, I’d stretch out on my rattan mat, which was all that came between me and the gnarled, warped floor-boards, savoring delights by the wavering, wan light of a storm-lamp: the Three Musketeers, or the woes of Uncle Tom. But I shared a bed with red ants whose bites burned like hell, and Buddha’s Brushes, tiny millipedes who could infiltrate earholes with ease; scorpions, and even slim snakes. And when the floods came, huge rats, half-underwater, swam level with my ear, their mobile snouts nosing through the drifting debris like miniature submarines.

Oh, those flood days are unforgettable. Water the color of pus rose up like a festering wound and covered this godforsaken place. It bewitched me.  

Our water jars floated away from their place at the foot of the stairs leading up to our house, sped by the wind, and washed up about fifty meters away, nearly always by the outdoor toilet. I had to swim out to bring them back and strap them tightly to the railing, out of reach of the swell.

At night it rained so much our thatch roof caved in. A gaping hole appeared, with blinding lightning, and rain . . . the sky became our ceiling. Our will-o’-the-wisp of a cabin shook violently. None of that stopped me from sleeping. But my father would always rouse me from the deepest dreams, at a point of such pleasure that my flea-ridden mat seemed like the softest bed in Nirvana.

“Virak, child of mine, come help me.”

I had such a difficult time pulling myself out of my dreams. If it hadn’t been for Papa, I would not have stirred, not even for all Ali Baba’s treasure. But I had to help him collect the rain in our jars, to save it as drinking water, since our well had flooded. Bravely I pulled myself out of my torpor, yawning over and over. I’d sit up with a start, huddle back up into a ball for a few minutes, my head between my legs to gather my spirits. Then I would head out somewhere, staggering along in search of pails of water. The jars filled, I would climb back under my mosquito net on all fours. Drenched, soaked to the bone, I would get back into my comfort zone like a mollusk retreating back into its shell. I could never get to sleep right away. I would shiver under my covers, teeth chattering, and bring the photo of Elizabeth Taylor out from under my pillow. I couldn’t take my eyes off her, this feisty slip of a woman. She was in a bikini, kneeling before a beach ball, on a beach in the Côte d’Azure. I’d linger over her eyes, her chest, her behind, and the sweetness of sensual dreams stole over me. I’d wish with all my soul that I’d find a wife with such a sweet body one day. I was only thirteen.

Yes! All this . . . living this harsh existence forged in me an indestructible filial love. Little by little my adolescent brain sketched out a plan of revenge on hardship that became my obsession: one day, when I’d finished my studies and got rich, I’d gift my father a dazzling car: if I couldn’t manage a Mercedes, then a Peugeot would do.

This project naturally went nowhere. I was so wound up about my desire to pull off the thing that mattered most to me in life. But when the moment came to “do the right thing,” I didn’t bother to do it because I was already worn out by my own restlessness. So the important thing got by me. Later, when I became the manager of a chain of newspapers in Phnom Penh, with money and influence at my disposal, not only did I not carry out my promise, my clandestine childhood vow, but when I finally departed for France, I completely ruined my father. He had climbed up the slope and out of poverty, all alone and without any help from me, yet on my account he was destroyed, defeated, and left groveling in front of the powers that be, completely undone . . .

I, the loving son, who kept aflame the memories of our misery years, nearly brought disgrace on him by leaving. I could not even bring myself to say farewell to him, but I reduced him to slime. Now it’s too late! I’ll never see him again. That season’s over. Time cannot return . . . The door to happiness has shut in my face, forever.

From L'Anarchiste (Paris: La Table Ronde, 1980; 2011). By arrangement with the publisher. Translation  © 2015 by Penny Edwards. All rights reserved. 

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