“The Revolver” by Phin Santel

“The Revolver” won second place in short fiction at the Nou Hach Literary Contest in 2006, and was published in Nou Hach Literary Journal, Vol. 3. Translation by Nou Hach Literary Association, 2006.  Author Phin Santel blogs at KhmerBird.com.  He is working on a new novel “The Quiet Cambodian.”




The Revolver 

by Phin Santel
Author’s Note:

The original story was written in Khmer. It was limited to twenty-five
pages and I was advised not to write about the subject of love. It was 
also the first time I had written a story so I wasn’t really sure what 
to write about. I wrote a story longer than twenty-five pages so the one
I sent to the Nou Hach Literary Competition was a shorter version. It 
actually won the second-place prize for short fiction, making me a 
little nervous. “The Revolver” comes closer than the original story to 
what I have been facing from the first day that I started to write about
my country. It’s more about me and my difficulties than the real story 
itself. The real story is about a rural woman and her rice field, a 
water pump and a revolver.

Forget about me ...follow the woman. I hope that you will like her as 
much as I do.

The fact that you came back to Cambodia didn't surprise anybody much. 
They already knew, since you decided to begin your studies of Khmer 
literature in Paris, that one day for sure you would return to Cambodia.
You ask your parents' permission since you won't be able to help them in
the restaurant anymore. Smey and Deth, your youngest sister and 
brother, have promised they will replace you.
     Except Caroline, you don't know how you can say goodbye to her. Having
gone through all these years together, it is impossible to imagine how 
much you will be lost without her. 
     “Are you leaving now?” she asks in front of the boarding gate at Charles
De Gaulle Airport.
     “Yes,” you answer spontaneously.
     “Without me?” she asks.
     “Because you can't go!” you say.
     “How do you know I cannot go? You didn’t ask me yet?” she insists.
     “Because I know the answer,” you reply.
Don’t cry, Caroline. You cried already once when you were born. You are 
not going to cry again and again for your whole life. You might cry 
again when you die but not this time. At least not in front of me...
     “Write to me when you arrive in Cambodia?” she requests  after releasing
you from her arms.
     “I think it is better if we forget each other,” you tell her instead of 
answering her question.
     “Do you think so?”
     You turn your back and leave. You let her cry in your mother's 
arms. It is not true. You will never forgot her. How could you forget 
someone you’d made love to a thousand times? But Paris is too cold. It 
is difficult to live alone. She will have a lot of chances to find some-
one else. It is sad to live with such promises. With time, these prom-
ises would be forgotten and betrayed. Time passes, nothing remains the 
same. Eternity is nothing but a lie. We should not believe in eternity.
Sometimes saying goodbye to someone doesn’t always mean goodbye. 
Caroline will understand this one day.
     You are very curious to know the true Cambodia. You have been watch
ing Cambodia from far away, in every detail through all its history and
literature. You believe it is not enough to know a country from reading
the newspapers or listening to the radio or watching television. A lot 
of things remain hidden. It is for this reason that you left Paris.
     You have already informed Vincent who is currently in Cambodia. 
Vincent is an old friend. Your parents escaped to France in 1975 because
of his father Monsieur Nicolae's help. Monsieur Nicolae and your father 
worked together at the French Embassy before the war began. The two fam-
ilies remained emotionally close since then.
     Vincent picks you up at the airport as you wished. You are very ex-
hausted, due to fifteen hours on the plane and six hours of time differ-
ence between Paris and Phnom Penh. Vincent brings you to his own apart-
ment on Sisowath Quay.
     You wake up late the next morning. Suddenly you feel the heat of 
the sun. It is something you have been dreaming about for the last twen-
ty years. You hurry to get out of bed. You step out on the balcony to 
bask in the sunshine. You cannot express how excited you are to be back 
again in your own country.
     Vincent has been living in Cambodia for four years. His mission for
the French Embassy is finished but he doesn't want to return to France.
He,after all, has fallen in love with a Cambodian woman. This does not 
surprise you because you know your friend very well. Vincent has a great
deal of knowledge about Khmer culture. He, at the moment, works at the
French Cultural Center in Phnom Penh.

They get married three months later, after you arrived in Cambodia. They
celebrate with a traditional Khmer wedding. Thyda, his wife, is very 
beautiful. She has dark shiny skin. She looks like a little girl but not
quite as small. You find her very cute. The two of them seem made for 
each other. Your parents and Vincent's parents fly a long way from Paris
to Phnom Penh to join his wedding. Your father wants to introduce you 
to some good daughters of his old friends. But you tell him you are just
twenty-five years old, too young to get married. You want to remain like
a wild man for some more time.
     A few days after the wedding, Vincent and Thyda go to Europe for 
their honeymoon. They let you live alone in their apartment on Sisowath 
Quay. Your parents also go back to France because they are concerned 
about their restaurant. You have to live alone with your solitude. It is
said that solitude is good for a writer. He can imagine so many things 
from solitude. But for you nothing goes well.You have been in Phnom Penh 
for three months; still you have nothing seriously to write about.
You dream of being able to write a love story about Cambodia. You were
ashamed when you searched all the world's libraries but could find only
books on Cambodia about genocide, stories of blood and  survival. You 
want the world to find a different book about Cambodia. You came here 
for this reason. You came to this country to write a book.

“What kind of book are you writing?” asks a woman one day.
     “A love story,” you reply.
     “A love story? What kind of love story? Do you think that love 
exists in this country?”
     “Yes, love exists in the heart of every human being. Wherever a 
person exists, there is a heart. And when there is a heart, there is 
love. Isn't this enough for you to believe love exists in Cambodia?” 
You question her in return.
     “Can I read your story?”
     “I haven’t written it yet. I don't know what kind of love story to 
write ...”
     What kind of love story can you write? Every day, for three months,
you find only accident reports and police reports about murders and 
crimes. The country is still suffering from  poverty. People need to 
survive. They don’t have time to think about love or any other emotional
engagement. There are only a few teenagers and other people who can 
close their eyes and remain ignorant of all the depressing events occur-
ring in society.
     It is said that Cambodia provides what you want. You can make love
with all kinds of women. You can invite the beer girls or Karaoke girls 
for “night soup,” a secret code of invitation if you don't dare ask a 
girl directly for sex. You can also have a waitress from a restaurant in
your bed if you have the right contacts. You can even ask a high school
student or a market vendor  to your room if you have the right contacts. 
You could also have a singer or movie star illuminate your night if you
have the right contacts. It depends on how much you have in your poc-
ket. This country is crazy about money.
     You try to escape and avoid all these things. It is hard, after 
all, to imagine something else. The surrounding environment makes you 
feel completely lost. When you get lost, only women can say who you are
and what to do. Women are the mothers of everything. A woman can give 
you thousands of reasons to live, especially when she moves her hands
and caresses your hair. A woman can make you feel alive or make you 
angry. You don't wait for the big thing from her. You just wait until 
she puts her finger in her mouth. It was very simple. Without women, you
are hopeless. You are zero. You find nothing to write about in this 
country; but from women’s naked bodies, you find thousands of mysteries 
to discover.At least you can find a story from every woman that you make
love with. 

You begin to show up  frequently at the bars downtown, especially the 
Heart of Darkness, a very small, pleasant bar at the corner of Pasteur 
Street.“Would you like to buy me a drink?” A young, lovely woman asks 
one evening.
     “Sorry? What did you just say?" You ask in surprise.
     You don't believe what you've just heard. It is rare to hear a real
Cambodian woman ask a guy to buy her a drink. She doesn’t even look like 
any of the prostitutes that you know here.
     “Buy me a drink!” She repeats.
     “OK.” You order a whiskey for her.
     “Is this seat taken?”
     “Hmm... Not really... it could be yours if you'd like to sit down.”
     “Oh, I see. Would you like to dance?”
     “With you?”
     “Yes with me, would you like to dance with me?”
     How can you refuse a pretty woman’s request? She comes from nowhere
and appears in front of you like an angel. She treats you like someone 
she has known for a hundred years. You feel very passionate about making 
love to her. She is like a starving wild animal, gone without food for 
three months.
     However, there is something she doesn't tell you. She doesn't tell 
you that she is the mistress of a Taiwanese gangster. She doesn't tell 
you that she goes out at night to get vengeance on her man. It is be-
cause he has abandoned her for one week to visit his wife in Taiwan. She
is sad and has an emergency need. You never think that she would be able
to endanger you. It is as people say: "Women are dangerous and the most
beautiful women are the most dangerous."
     It starts from there, in the Heart Darkness, that you get to know 
Sam. He lets you live. If it had not been for him, you probably would 
have been killed without being able to say a single word. It is not good
to deceive a woman who belongs to someone else. A woman, whether here or 
there, cannot be shared. If you want to try, you will be killed in 

This is the evening the gangster returns to see his mistress. This woman,
she does not love you at all, or at least she is not willing to protect
you. She leaves with her master without saying anything. You never be-
lieved that this woman could leave you without a single word. Sam re-
ceives his boss’s order to eliminate you from this world. He takes you 
to a place far from the city. He waits for the right moment to shoot you
with his revolver. You already believe that you are going to die with-
out being able to say anything. But we die only once; why not resist, a
least with words before the end?
     “I cannot die!!!” You shout with all your strength.
     “Why? Why can’t you die? You are playing around with someone else’s
woman. You must die. Isn’t it justifiable, no?” Sam asks you with a 
     “It’s because I haven’t done what I want to do yet.”
     “What do you want to do, precisely?”
     “Write a story!!!”
     “What kind of story do you think you can write about this country?”
He asks you.
     “A love story.”
     “Love story? What kind of love story? Do you think that love exists
in this country? Do you believe that deceiving someone else’s woman is a 
love story? Is that what you think?”
     “No, no... It was a mistake. I made a mistake. It is true that I am
going to die. To die today or tomorrow is nothing important. But before 
I die, I want to at least finish writing one story.”
     “Do you believe that you actually can finish one?”
     “I’ve already got some ideas.”
     “When can I read it?”
     “If you kill me now, how can I write it?”
     You don't know if Sam can wait to read your love story. You don't 
know if you will or will not be able to finish this story one day. The 
important thing is that he doesn't kill you. He lets you live. This good
man later becomes a very sincere friend. He has worked for the Taiwanese 
gangster for a few months. You ask him why he chooses this job. He tells
you that he doesn’t have a choice. He has a lot of debt to pay after 
having lost so many soccer bets. The boss has lent him a sum of money to
pay them off.
     It is also for this reason that his wife Sim comes to look for him.
He hasn’t sent money or any news back home for the past three months.His 
wife has been worried about him. Sam and Sim grew up together in the 
same family. Sam was an orphan. His parents were killed during the Khmer
Rouge regime. Sim’s family found Sam on the street while they were re-
turning to the village after 1979. Sam has lived with Sim’s family since
     Sam can do everything an ordinary man can usually do. He is a ser-
ious man.It is because of his qualities that Sim’s family married him to 
their daughter when he reached twenty. Sim, with the arrangement from 
her parents and also with her will, got married so young. She was only 
eighteen. She didn't know anything about love. She didn't know what she 
should do after getting married.. Sam could not get close to Sim for the
first three months. Sam fell from the bed every night after trying to 
get close to his wife. You don't know how Sam could make love to his 
wife. You don't know what he did so that Sim finally agreed to make 
love. You have heard it said how this happens to some rural women. It's 
because they don't know anything about love.
     Sim knows how to grow rice. She knows how to raise cows. She knows 
how to clean the house. She knows how to cook.Moreover she's good at it. 
She wakes up early in the morning at four a.m. to cook. She knows how to
make other things. But there are some things she doesn't know. She 
doesn't know why she's been sad since her husband left her to work in 
the city, since he hasn't returned home. She doesn't even realize that 
she is sad.
     “Do you love him, your husband?”
     “I don't know... I don't know what to say. I don't know about 
love... I don't know how to talk about it... how to love...”
     “But why do you come  look for him?”
     “I worry about him.”
     “So then, that means you think about him a little I imagine?”
     “Yes, I think about him all the time, all night long. I want him to
come back home. I want him close to me to help grow rice, to raise cows 
and to do other work.”
     “But it doesn't have anything to do with your wanting to kiss him, 
for example? Rather to reassure yourself that he still loves you? Or to 
tell you his feelings in sweet words of love?”
     “I don't know about any of that. He never spoke to me of love. Nor
I…I don't know how to say big things. I don't know...”
     “I see that you love him a lot, this man. I can see it in you, this 
love. Why can’t you feel anything? It exists in you, I'm certain of it.”
     “I don't know. I want him back home with me.  I also need a water 
     “Why is a pump necessary?”
     “It’s because there's not enough rain, not enough water in the rice 
field. We need a machine to pump water. Otherwise, the rice will die.”

Sam leaves home because the rice paddy doesn't yield enough rice to sup-
port his family. He starts working in the city two years ago, in a car 
garage. He sends all the money he earns to his wife every month. He is a
great man. It is his mistake betting on soccer matches. You believe he 
did it to return home with a bit of money in his pocket. He doesn't know
that soccer is just a great choice for loosing all his money.
     There are a lot of people in this country and  many who are obses-
sed with games. They are poor and would like to have a little more 

Sam leaves his wife with you without telling you what he is up to or 
where he is going. You only know that he has a very important task to 
finish tonight. He says it will be his last job, his last payback from 
his boss. If he is successful, he will be returning to the countryside 
with his wife.
     After her husband leaves, Sim cannot remain calm. Her concern be-
comes more and more intense. She is afraid that something unfortunate 
will happen to her husband. She walks from right to left, from left to 
right. She descends and ascends the stairs many times. She comes to you 
asking the same questions: “Where is he now? What's taking him so long?”
     You don't know how to help this woman. You don't want her crying 
either.Suddenly you think of a place you hope may calm her down. You 
take her to Dangkal Temple, a place where people usually pray for happi-
ness and blessings for those they love.
     Sim does this.  She prays for Sam. It is said that the Dangkal 
diety is a good lord. Whatever people ask for comes true because of the 
power of the Dangkal god. You don't believe in gods; but when you see 
Sim pray, you pray for her. You hope that Sam will return safely and in 
good health. Then he can take his wife back to the countryside.
     After prayers are done, you take her to the old market to buy gro-
ceries so she can prepare a meal. You don't know what to do to make her 
happy. You think that cooking will reduce her anxiety about her husband.
In the kitchen, you try asking many questions to keep her occupied. You 
find out this woman doesn't know how to speak her mind. She is very shy. 
Every time you ask her a question, her face turns red. She is very shy 
when speaking about love. You find out a lot of funny things, especially
when she tells you about  pushing her husband off the bed every night 
when he first tried to touch her. This way you learn a lot about their 
time together early in their marriage.
     But you cannot fool her for long with conversation...
     After the meal, she is doing nothing but walking around, going to 
watch the  people down along Sisowath Quay. She goes up and down the 
stairs looking for Sam multiple times. Her husband is not back yet. You
drive her in the car Vincent left for you. You tour the city to calm her
down a little. She is looking for her husband on every street. She does-
n't get bored looking at every street corner, looking for her husband. 
She doesn't stop even one minute to rest. You can see it in her eyes, 
the deep worry she has for her husband. You bring her to the Heart of 
Darkness, the place where you first  met Sam. But he is not there.
Where is he?
     It is a question you cannot answer. At two A.M. you finally manage 
to get Sim back home. She is tired but doesn't want to go to bed. She is 
sleeping in the front room waiting to open the door for her returning 
husband. You don't want to sleep either. You want to write something 
about this woman. She touches you deeply, with her silence, her unspeak-
able feelings she doesn't know how to express. She keeps everything in-
side. If you were her, at least you would be able to say something. But
she doesn’t know how to communicate feelings.
     But what could we speak about, love?

Hours pass; you find  no words either. Can this woman's feelings be ex-
pressed in words? Do we have some words to exchange that could relieve 
her concern?
     It is too hard, you find, for her to keep everything suppressed.You 
keep searching for the exact words until someone knocks on the door. Sim
 wakes up and goes before you to open it. There is Sam, finally. There 
he is at the door, smiling. Thank god he is still alive. Moreover he is 
grinning. His smile is enough to assure you that his task has been suc-
cessfully. Sim hugs her husband tightly.
     She tells Sam repeatedly: “Don't leave me alone anymore... don't 
leave me alone anymore.”
     Sam wants to leave immediately, to take a taxi and head back to the 
countryside. You tell him to wait a moment. Then, you go get some money
from your room. You give him 200 dollars. He refuses at first. You knew
he would so you tell him that you are going to write a story about his 
wife. It is the price you will pay for her information. You believe that
200 dollars will be enough to buy a water pump for the rice field. In 
return Sam gives you his revolver. You don’t want the gun; but if you 
refuse, he will not accept your money.
     “What kind of story are you writing about me?” Sim asks before they 
     “A love story.”
     “A love story? What kind of love story? Do you think that you can 
write a love story about me?”
     “Yes, love exists in everyone's heart. Wherever there is a human 
being,there is a heart. And with a heart, there is love. Is this not 
enough to make you believe there is also love in you?”
     “Can I read your story?”
     “I wrote it yesterday. I must reread it and correct some mistakes. 
I am going to bring it with me when I visit you in the countryside.”
     “Don't forget then to bring it with you. I want to read...,” Sim 
requests very sincerely.

The next morning you go for a cup of coffee as usual in the restaurant 
down along Sisowath Quay. You find out by chance just glancing at the 
front page of a newspaper. It reads “Chinese Man Murdered Last Night”. 
He was shot three times by a revolver. It reminds you of something. You
check the bullets still  in the revolver that Sam gave you. There are
exactly three left.