A rare and precious glimpse of pre-Khmer Rouge literature, Suon Sorin’s recently translated novel is set during Norodom Sihanouk’s Cambodia. Originally published in 1961, it harks back to the late colonial and post-colonial eras.
Except for the conclusion and prologue, in which cyclo-pousse driver Sam is on his way to attend a National Congress as a delegate, the entire book is set in flashback. Cambodian independence of 1953 sets a chronological marker of a before and after.
Sam has, with his wife Soy, left his conflict-ridden home in Battambang province for the capital city. His life in Phnom Penh is one of hardships, which they must navigate. Their daily existence is tested by injustice, poverty, greed, and hope.
Sam and Soy’s days take an even darker turn when Sam becomes unable to pay the daily rental fee owed to the owner of his cyclo. Quickly, the family’s trajectory spirals downwards as their only source of income is repossessed. They are evicted from their home. Both the wealthier landlord and cyclo owner show no pity, a recurrent theme. Without enough savings for a deposit, Sam is unable to rent a new cyclo. Coming to terms with the situation, Soy will accept paid work as a domestic servant of a rich trader. This marks the start of a new chapter for Sam and Soy.
The first English-language translation of A New Sun Rises Over the Old Land translation is both a significant effort in itself and provides an opportunity to widen the readership of a gripping story. Roger Nelson’s formidable feat is testament to a deep respect towards the source material. The prose remains airy while helpful notes contextualize locations and terminology for readers unfamiliar with Phnom Penh’s history and landscape.
The original book won the first Indradevi Literary Competition under the auspices of then Head of State, Norodom Sihanouk. Sihanouk’s affection for the arts, above all, cinema is well-known; less so, perhaps, is his similarly direct involvement in literary affairs. During the award ceremony in 1961, Nelson relates Sihanouk’s speech in which the monarch-turned-politician expressed a determining view on the role of Cambodian writers, holding “a responsibility not only to literature, but also to nation building.”
Suon Sorin’s story is undeniably anchored in that zeitgeist. It can in many ways be read as a prescriptive tale. His protagonist, Sam, despises the greedy, the selfish, the corrupt. As a cyclo driver, Sam is the epitome of the daily worker sacrificed by his bosses, waking up without knowing where his next meal would come from. His family and close friends honor the traditional values of the Khmer society, contrasting their thoughts and actions against Buddhist principles. Sam longs for dignity and respect. Solidarity that transcends class is a heralded ideal in the novel.
A New Sun Rises Over the Old Land is a call for faith in better days, brought about by the advent of an independent Cambodia and Sihanouk’s leadership. When Sam returns to Phnom Penh in 1960, after several years away, he notices tremendous improvements to the city, which he attributes to the Royal Government. Places of moral depravity have closed, new schools and hospitals are established, old ones renovated, cars and city lights litter the streets, a sense of safety, democratic participation and prosperity embalms the capital. The contrast with Sam’s earlier ordeal, under the previous regime, serves the Sangkum Reastr Niyum’s propaganda.
Suon Sorin’s novel was a bestseller upon its release and remains widely read in contemporary Cambodia. His main character’s aspiration for a good life, guided by ethics, hard work and harmonious relations echoes Sihanouk’s promise of modernization, as well as the ambiguity of his tenuous ideological balance between monarchism, conservatism, and “Buddhist socialism”. For many, the Sangkum Reastr Niyum period evokes nostalgia, one of ambitions and transformations, a time before the Khmer Rouge tragedy and its legacy. Founded in 1955 by Sihanouk as he stepped down from the throne in favor of his father, the Sangkum movement dominated Cambodian politics until 1970. Today, one can still observe in Phnom Penh the unique architecture inspired by the Sangkum period, standing side by side with more contemporary high-rise condominiums and office buildings sprouting as the city expands. Yet if Suon Sorin’s novel indeed captures the zeitgeist of the 1960s and its accompanying hope, how did the Khmer Rouge gain power the decade later?
The novel may not have the scope to answer this question but it does provide insights to deep ethnic and class divides. Sam calls for fairness and justice, as he challenges the notion of economic determinism. He regularly questions the value of integrity when faced with the repeated cunning of those who Sam knows as ‘capitalists’. Suon Sorin highlights Chinese and Vietnamese origins of the capitalist class through their names, and contrasts them with Sam. “It is only the poor who can understand the poor,” Sam tells a friend. City life left him crushed, while the countryside offered prospects and fulfillment.
A narrative which places otherness and mistrust at the center would later find a ghastly denouement, propelled among other factors by the Second Indochina War and economic collapse. Lon Nol’s military regime toppled Sihanouk’s Sangkum Reastr Niyum movement and ended the monarchy by 1970. The ultimate rise of the Kampuchean Communist Party catastrophically followed.
Unfortunately, the author’s life and fate remains blurry. A New Sun Rises Over the Old Land is his only surviving work. Suon Sorin is assumed to have perished during the Khmer Rouge genocide, along with up to two million fellow Cambodians.
A New Sun Over the Old Land is compelling, tackling universal themes and conflicts. Roger Nelson offers an important contribution to the dissemination of pre-1975 Cambodian arts and history.