Friday, December 02, 2016

Lao literature: Phaphutthahuup Saksit, the first modern Lao novel

Phaphutthahuup Saksit, The Sacred Buddha Image was the first modern Lao novel, published in 1944 by Pierre Somchine Nginn (1892-1971). The plot of the novel involves a Lao-French detective searching for a missing Buddha image. It's interesting that our community first opted to try writing a mystery novel.

For historical context, this was composed during World War 2, particularly the tumultuous period following the fall of France to the Germans in 1940 and Laos came under the rule of the French Vichy government, which was under Japanese supervision. In 1944, the Lao-Seri movement was forming with a "Laos for Laotians" policy that would seek independence from the French.

Nginn is remembered as noted composer of French verse. He was born in Luang Prabang, the son of François Nginn, who had participated in the 1892 Pavie mission.

The French edition of Wikipedia notes that after studying in Saigon and Paris, he began a career in 1909 in Primary Education. Subsequently he took on increasingly important duties.. In 1949 he became Director of the National Service of Information, Propaganda and the Press in Laos. He also published a volume of poetry in French: Dok Champa (ດອກ ຈໍາ ປາ) (1961).

He was a founding member of the Literary Committee Lao (ກັມ ມະ ການ ວັນ ນະ ຄະ ດີ ລາວ), founded in 1948 and transformed in 1970 by royal decree to the Royal Academy of Laos (ຣາ ຊ ບັນ ດິດ ສະ ພາ ລາວ). He presided over both institutions from 1952-1975.

Pierre Somchine Nginn had undertaken translation work of Lao literary heritage in French. With (ຫຍຸຍ ອະ ໄພ) Thao Nhouy Abhay he composed an abridged translation of the epic poem Sinsay (ສັງ ສິນ ໄຊ ໂດຍ ປາງ ຄໍາ) byPangkham (1965) and the narrative in verse the history of Chanthakhat (ຈັນ ທະ ຄາດ) (1966).

The writers at StudyLao.Com concede that the novel might seem simplistic or naive to modern readers, but it was a significant work as one of the first texts to attempt Lao prose, rather than verse. They also feel that "due to its brevity and direct, simple prose, Phaphutthahuup Saksit is ideal for the intermediate student of Lao as a first foray into more complex texts beyond folk tales and news articles."

What will the future holds for Lao mysteries, considering this novel as well as the body of work Collin Cotterill has created with his Dr. Siri novels. These involved a Lao coroner set in the years shortly after the end of the Laotian Civil War.


Scooter said...

Bonjour / Sabaidee,

I stumbled across your blog whilst looking for more information on Pierre Somchine Nginn. I am a Québécois professor of Francophone Studies and Sociolinguistics and I have been researching Laos for a while now in terms of looking for writings in French here, either before of after independence from France. As you denoted. Mr. Somchine Nginn is indeed the very first person to publish literature in Lao (and he has several publications, all of which he translated into French as well). In addition to that, he published in original French also (not translated from Lao). I stumbled across one such book and I am going to publish on it, and discuss writers from Lao who wrote in French (and who also may still be writing in French, either within Laos or in the Diaspora). As Laos is a full member of "la Francophonie" (a sort of French-language United Nations), it is time that the country be given greater recognition to its contributions to French, past and present. Anyways, I appreciate that you gave this important writer a shout out!!!! Best of luck.

Dr Robert Cooper said...

There is no 'Rue Pierre Nginn' in Vientiane but there is a Rue François Nginn, Pierre's father who came with Pavie. All other colonialists were removed from street names in 1954 with Independence. They were replaced with the names of Lao kings (still there in spite of the regime change of 1975). Worth noting that were either father or son alive today they would not get a Lao ID card or Lao passport unless at least one of their names is Lao. Never heard the family name Nginn. And why do both famous 'Lao' have French names?
Re Colin Cotterill. the first in the Dr Siri series has been translated into Lao. If you want a copy go to his website.