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A New Sun Rises
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(--) : story and writing fairly rough and basic, but of considerable socio-literary/historical interest
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
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The complete review's Review:
A New Sun Rises Over the Old Land was published in 1961 and, as translator Roger Nelson notes in his Introduction, it is: "an iconic work of modern Khmer fiction" which: "remains widely read in Cambodia today, and is still prescribed reading in many Cambodian schools and universities".
Practically no Khmer literature is available in English translation -- and what there is, Nelson notes: "chiefly consists of folk tales, pre-modern epics, as well as excerpts and short stories" -- but, as elsewhere in Southeast Asia, novels were a popular form and there was, for a time, a considerable output of them -- with reportedly some fifty or so a year published in the heyday of Khmer fiction, between independence in 1953 and the crushing Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975.
After the new press law in 1957, there were essentially no political or socially critical novels, nor new creative developments in psychological depth of character development or literary form. Permission to publish any book had to be obtained through the Ministry of Information, which clearly approved only pro-Sihanouk literature. The few novels that were critical of the monarchy and published clandestinely were banned or the writers arrested.As both Nelson and Yamada mention, Sihanouk himself spoke at the inaugural Indradevi Literary Competition, a national literary prize that was won by this novel, using the occasion to remind authors of their duty to support government policy (while avoiding writing directly about politics ...). Suon's book certainly praises the new path under Sihanouk -- one can see how it was seen as exemplary in that regard -- and also contrasts it, very favorably, with the earlier, far worse conditions under the colonialists, the French. Indeed, A New Sun Rises Over the Old Land reminds of nothing so much as earnest nationalist socialist realist writing, with a South East Asian spin, positive and idealistic about present and future while painting a dismal picture of the recent past. (Interestingly, Nelson notes that no critical reviews of the book appeared in the (Sihanouk-overseen) press of the time, despite how glowingly supportive the novel is of the party programme.)
The novel begins and ends in 1960, a Prologue carrying Suon Sam, the story's protagonist, by train to Phnom Penh from his (and author Suon Sorin's) home province of Battambang for the Ninth National Congress while the final chapters report on the congress and then his return back home. The bulk of the novel, however, looks back to what has led Sam here -- to ultimately show how:
Dragging up his memory of life seven or eight years ago, and comparing it to his life in the present, Sam saw that his life in these two eras was as different as the sky and the land, as day and night.As to what he dredges up, it's not a pretty picture:
Thinking of his past, Sam wanted only to scream, to tell everyone. It had been a life completely filled with suffering and sadness.Circling back to his beginnings, the novel then proceeds chronologically, from when Sam was still young, losing his father -- accused of being involved with the Khmer Issarak movement -- when he was just in sixth grade, and his mother soon later. (The text says Sam's father was captured by French soldiers in 1959, but this must be a misprint; the Khmer Issarak were active shortly after World War II, and the French no longer in power after 1953; presumably the date that is meant is 1949, which would make for a more realistic chronology.) At age eighteen then Sam, all alone in the world, heads off to Phnom Penh, looking for work
Sam begins with a job as a laborer, working for a trader, but finds the job too demeaning -- no better than a slave -- and quits. His early work experiences have him repeatedly as an underling with supervisors who are abusive -- bosses are almost invariably bad here --; ultimately he at least escapes this form of servitude and becomes a cyclo-driver -- the regionally popular form of transport, a kind of bicycle-rickshaw. He does have to rent the cyclo from its owner -- generally someone with a whole stable of them --, making him beholden to a capitalist in a different way; a fee is due daily, and repeatedly he has difficulty keeping up with the payments. Losing his position as a cyclo-renter also makes for another hurdle, as any new cyclo-owner he would want to rent a vehicle from would require a deposit -- money he generally does not have. Indeed, many forms of employment he seeks require a deposit -- yet another example of how the labor-market is stacked against workers.
Sam gets married -- though regrettably Suon shows even less interest in fleshing out personal relationships and interaction in revealing how this came about than he does later in the novel. We learn simply that:
After that, Sam no longer slept at the temple, because he had a wife. Before they married, Soy, his wife, had worked as a servant for a capitalist.While any and all romantic background material is missing -- how they met and fell in love, and all the rest -- they are at least dutifully devoted to each other. Their life remains a struggle. Down and out -- and then homeless -- Soy takes up an offer to work as a domestic for rich man Hok; this too ends in disaster and tragedy (she lasts all of one night), with ramifications then also for Sam, when he wants to react to the initial injustice. As almost throughout, the wealthy and powerful can get away with almost anything; the poor and powerless must suffer in silence, or worse.
For a long time Sam and his wife can't catch a break; among his stations over this time are a few months in prison, and a month in hospital. For a while, things work out better: he gets a factory job, and is soon put in a position of greater authority -- but then a new supervisor arrives who wants to replace the Khmer coolies with Chinese and Vietnamese ones ("because Khmer coolies are so lazy and work so slowly"). Sam tries to be supportive of the workers under him, but of course winds up losing his job.
It begins a cycle for Sam (whose: "life was always twisting and turning, as was his destiny"): he'd get a new factory position, get promoted to a supervisor position ('corporal'), and then get fired because, in his higher position, he still supported the workers rather than taking the side of the owners. While the owners were impressed by him when he was a hard worker, they expected him to toe the line once he was management, and turn on his former comrades -- but he was always on the side of the workers.
Eventually, Sam is back to driving a cyclo, but he and his wife continue to be desperately poor. Soy gets pregnant, but when she is to give birth there is no money to get proper medical attention. Not given to subtlety, in any way, this is a book which barely offers the hope of tragedy being avertible and the fate of poor Soy -- long presented as little more than Sam's "pitiful wife" -- is already announced in the chapter heading: 'Soy Dies with No One to Take Care of Her'. The point isn't so much her fate as to the injustice that is behind it -- as is the case with so many of the bad turns that happen along the way throughout the novel.
Crime is presented as one route that some have taken to get out of poverty, and it is dangled in front of Sam as a solution, too. Showing Sam as always morally completely upright, Suon's story does have one big jolt, when a desperate Sam really does do the unthinkable. It is, however, barely more than a momentary lapse; typically, too, it is followed by a chapter titled: 'Sam is Imprisoned for Being Honest' -- as, yes, even honesty doesn't pay, especially if you are dealing with capitalists.
Finally, Sam has piece of good luck -- though it involves him getting hit (again) by a car. The driver is an honest government official who offers Sam compensation and then a job, and for a while there's some security and comfort to Sam's life. But, eventually, Sam isn't satisfied:
Sam saw that living as a worker in the capital was not comfortable and enjoyable. It was not a living filled with honour and glory; not a living that had any prosperity or growth at all. Living in the city these past few years, Sam's life had been gradually devastated, like a flower without enough water, withering and fading day by day.There has, however, been a national transformation: Cambodia is now independent -- and ruled by the wise King Sihanouk. Suon presents the transformation as pretty much overnight: suddenly:
All classes of the Khmer people, both in the city and in the countryside, had also received tranquility and happiness, without fear of further insecurity.Sam sees that in these new times -- when: "a new sun has risen over the old land -- has risen over the land of French colonialism, has risen over the deceitful politicians" -- he can return to the idyll of peasant-life in the countryside. He: "remembered his life as a peasant in the past, a life which was filled with freedom, happiness and harmony" -- which seems a bit of romanticizing (and, besides, it was under the oppressive French colonialists, wasn't it ?) -- and now he wants to return to the land, to grow rice to help feed the nation, and that's what he does.
Things actually don't go so well at first, because: "his fields depended on the skies", but after three years, during which the government had invested heavily in irrigation infrastructure, the farmers now no longer had to depend on rainfall and fare much better. Sam becomes a local leader, too -- and, as such, also attends that 1960 Ninth National Congress, which also gives him an opportunity to see how the capital has changed since his miserable years there. It's all for the good of course -- schools and clinics all over, while those naughty nightclubs have mostly been put out of business -- and Sam is pleased to note:
This showed Sam that Khmer citizens of every class had nowadays changed their attitudes. They had done away with fun that wastes time and money, for no benefit, and instead thought only of working hard, to contribute to improving their nation.The back-to-the-land romanticizing of rice-farming, in particular, and the criticism of the frivolous are uncomfortably close to later Khmer Rouge ideology -- though of course this back-to-foods-basics is a common national ideal, familiar not just from socialist-era fictions; one must also take into account just how limited economic opportunity was in the Cambodia of these times (and even though Suon has Sam work in a whole series of factories, there's never even any mention of what is actually being produced; like so much, manufacturing remains almost an abstract concept here).
While Suon's general colonialist-capitalist critique is, in broad terms, defensible, aspects of it are discomfiting, particularly the racial aspect. Interestingly, the French remain largely unseen here; it is Chinese capitalists that are the evil figures here -- while Chinese and Vietnamese laborers are repeatedly also presented as the ones taking away jobs from the locals.
Meanwhile, the glorification of the Sihanouk regime comes across as very toadying -- over the top, really. The Cambodia Suon presents really is divided, radically, into black (before) and white (now, under Sihanouk) -- as if the shift could have been so sudden and complete. Surely even in 1961 this didn't ring very convincing .....
Suon heaps the action into A New Sun Rises Over the Old Land, Sam moving through so many jobs, few of which are described in much detail: Suon is more interested in turning points -- Sam abandoning a position, or being fired from it -- hammering home his messages about the evils of capitalists who are, invariably, unjust. (The one good employer Sam finally finds is, unsurprisingly, a government official.) Too often, the personal remains missing, especially as regards Soy; at least Sam has a good friend, and the interactions with him and his wife -- Soy and he live with them at times, too -- makes for a bit of regular, friendly interaction, but all in all Suon is too focused on making his points (and critiques) rather than fleshing out either his story or his characters. The material would be there -- indeed, there might even be too much of it (Sam goes through a lot of jobs, and more ups and downs than one can count) -- and as the few scenes which are presented at least a bit more in depth, it's often rich material. Even in this form, the roller-coaster of calamities and changes does at least make for a very fast and busy story. Stark and vivid, A New Sun Rises Over the Old Land certainly makes an impression.
The writing is quite rough and basic, but it moves along quickly enough that the faults don't really get too much in the way. More problematic is the (relentless) pacing, and the over-fill of events -- often barely more than listed. Sam goes through an extraordinary number of jobs -- but somehow Suon manages to say practically nothing about what almost any of them involve; only the cyclo-riding is really conveyed in any sort of detail, with it entirely unclear what Sam actually does in his other jobs.
There's also not a great deal of depth to the characters: Sam is an upstanding man who occasionally is too impulsive, Soy is understanding and devoted, but we get very little sense of much more to them (or their relationship) -- much less of many of the other characters. The rare longer exchanges, such as the confrontation between Sam and Hok, show some of the potential here, but mostly Suon just plows right through and on, again and again.
This isn't entirely unsuccessful: A New Sun Rises Over the Old Land might sound, in summary, like a litany of miseries, but for all the terrible things happen (and there are so many) it isn't entirely bleak and grim. In part that is due Sam's fatalistic but fundamentally positive outlook -- but it's also that in not lingering over anything, including the times of actual suffering, even the worst (death; time spent in prison or in hospital), Suon keeps the focus on the larger issues, rather than the individual turns of fate. A New Sun Rises Over the Old Land never wallows in the terrible injustice that just happened, bounding instead to and even over next one(s), on and on ..... The reader sympathizes with the maltreated peasant- and working class, but in not more fully developing the injured parties, the reader is not nearly as emotionally invested in the characters as in similar-style European novels, for example. Suon describes an unjust world full of hardship, but A New Sun Rises Over the Old Land is not sentimental in familiar novel-ways. (If it is sentimental about anything it is peasant-life and working the land -- growing rice, in particular -- but even this is described only in the most general and impersonal terms (there are no scenes of anyone actual growing, harvesting, or processing rice, either, for example).)
Nelson noted in his Introduction that:
Although its narrative and prose may in parts seem quaint or awkward to today's reader, the novel's historical value is great: for the study of society and politics in this period, and also as a resource for art historians, urban researchers, and others.It is practically impossible to separate A New Sun Rises Over the Old Land from its context. Taken simply as a literary text it would be judged as inadequate: there is some decent writing here, but the text as a whole, with its mess of construction and pacing, wouldn't pass in a high school creative writing class. Its wide-eyed idealism, of a new day dawning thanks to the wise beneficent great leader, too, is at odds with the gritty realism of the rest of the novel -- a too-good-to-be-true picture that even (or especially) in 1961 Cambodia must have sounded more like wishful thinking than the reality of the day.
A New Sun Rises Over the Old Land is a programmatic novel, and programme ultimately overwhelms everything else -- characters and story. It is the one excuse for the underdeveloped characters: Suon is more concerned with types and class than the individual, his novel trying to encompass the problems of this society as a whole. Unfortunately, Suon does not really present or examine class forces; instead, every capitalist (which, here, includes almost everyone of any means and/or education) is simply presented as, per se, mean and completely unconcerned with the working/peasant class. The suffering of Soy and their friends also figures briefly in some of the story, but basically Sam is the stand-in victim for all the oppression of the wealthy classes; it's a lot for one character to bear.
A New Sun Rises Over the Old Land is a product of its specific times and circumstances -- and certainly interesting as such, especially given how few accounts of any sort exist of these. Roger Nelson's Introduction, though giving away rather much of the story (but then so do the chapter titles ...), is helpful in providing both background and explanation, situating author, novel, and history well. A New Sun Rises Over the Old Land can't really be considered a good novel, but it is an interesting and worthwhile one -- especially in the absence of practically any other Cambodian fiction, from that time or later.
- M.A.Orthofer, 20 May 2020
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Cambodian author Suon Sorin (សួន សុរិន្ទ) was born in 1930. He is assumed to have perished under the Khmer Rouge.
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