Caught by the River

'River of Time' revisited.

12th May 2009

A review of ‘River of Time‘ by Jon Swain. Written by Arthur Alexander Parker and published on The Wag blog in June 1999.


Does Jon Swain have a death wish, or an impulse to live life so fully that he’ll risk his neck for the merry hell of it? After reading River of Time: A Memoir of Vietnam and Cambodia, the Englishman’s account of his life as a foreign correspondent during the wars in Cambodia and Vietnam, you have to wonder. But as a reader, you have to be grateful too, for that same dual impulse has produced an enthralling book.

Swain’s experiences have made him something of a legend. Some of his experiences in Cambodia found their way into the movie The Killing Fields, an account of the Communist Khmer Rouge’s victory over the U.S.-backed government in Phnom Penh, and the forced march of millions of Cambodians into the countryside to face execution or starvation. He’s portrayed in the film as the Englishman who lends an expired passport to a scheme to smuggle a Cambodian friend, Pran, out with the fleeing Westerners. The scheme fails when the false passport is detected. The story of Pran’s escape from Pol Pot’s gulag forms the final part of The Killing Fields. But as Swain makes clear, there were adventures all over in Indochina in the 1970s.

The thirst for adventure that led Swain to enlist in the French Foreign Legion at seventeen (he was ousted after a month when his superiors learned that he wanted to be a journalist) landed him in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, in 1970 as a reporter for a Paris news service. A “gracious tolerant life” was about to unravel as the Vietnam War spilled across the Mekong River and into Cambodia. The Mekong is the central metaphor of the book, a porous border between life and death “that washed through me like a tide.” Swain evokes the river dreamily, alive to its romance and beauty even as he notes, with a reporter’s eye for detail, the bodies of war victims “being tossed about in its violent eddies.”

Swain’s arrival in Phnom Penh is the beginning of a love affair with Cambodia “to which I have been faithful ever since.” The book has the elegiac quality of a man pining for lost youth and lost love, but Swain’s writing is so evocative the reader is persuaded that these things were never really lost, because Swain has captured them on the page.

On his first days in the capital, he sees “Buddhist monks in saffron robes and shaven heads walking down avenues of blossom-scented trees; schoolgirls in white blouses and blue skirts pedaling past with dazzling smiles, offering garlands of jasmine to have their picture taken.” Yet even as he savors living among these pleasure-seeking and insouciant people, he seems intent upon placing himself in danger. “The need to confront a life-threatening situation was strong,” he notes. He didn’t have to look far. The war moved from the back burner to the front as the Lon Nol government found itself in a losing battle with communist forces.

Phnom Penh was close to the fighting, and Swain writes that he could get to the front line in less time than a Londoner could get to work in the morning. He watches teenagers with three days’ training march into communist ambushes; he is ambushed himself and manages to get back to Le Royal Hotel at the capital in time for drinks by the pool. He visits brothels and goes to opium parlors; one of his smoking buddies is an important KGB officer who, he notes, can drink and smoke the Americans under the table. Here is Swain on why he and his colleagues sought surcease in the opium house, or fumerie:

With opium, our inner thoughts took wings. And it turned out that for most of us the enemy was not the deadly carnage in the Cambodian fields but the tedium of life itself; especially the perceived dreariness and conformity we had left behind in the West, to whose taboos and musty restrictions we dreaded having one day to return. During the day we might have experienced terrifying incidents and made life-and-death decisions as to were to go, and how long it was wise to stay on a battlefield. But the war also provided us with a certain freedom, which is why we liked being here. We felt we had broken loose and were accomplices in an escape from the straitjacket of ease and staid habits.

Lying down and smoking, eyes closed, we were scarcely aware of the outside, even when, through the open window, an occasional flash and boom of artillery reminded us of the battles raging in the countryside. Later on, when the American B52 carpet-bombing came closer to Phnom Penh, we would feel a sullen rolling vibration as though we were on the periphery of a great earthquake. The whole house quivered. Yet, thanks
to the soothing balm of the opium, I recall a strange, almost childlike, satisfaction, a feeling of absolute content in the mysterious certainty that we were utterly secure where we lay. Then at some stage, at two or so in the morning, our thoughts drifted away and we sank into an ocean of forgetfulness. Time did not exist in the limbo of the fumerie.

When Swain moves on to Saigon, it is as if he has lost his first love. He portrays his life in South Vietnam in a harsher light, as he finds a cultural collision between the French remnants of the old colonial regime and the new and brash Americans, another great power facing eventual defeat. Still, he finds real love there as he begins a long affair with the most beautiful woman in Saigon. Yet he leaves her. As news comes of Phnom Penh’s imminent fall to the Khmer Rouge, he catches the last flight into the capital.

Many more adventures follow; Swain attracts them like metal draws lightning. After getting out of Cambodia he returns to England and permits himself to be sent, against his better judgment, to cover a rebellion in Ethiopia. He is soon captured by the rebels. Accused of being a spy, Swain tells his captors that the BBC will confirm his identity when it reports that he is missing. His captors, seeking proof, tune in on their short-wave radios. But the BBC has decided not to make the news public on the grounds that it might endanger Swain. He is held for months before being released.

Now, as Swain looks back over a career as a much-honored journalist, he finds himself still drawn to Indochina, the site of so many terrors and youthful dreams. Swain left his heart there more than twenty years ago, but in River of Time he has retrieved it from the turbulent and tragic waters of the Mekong.

(you can buy the book in the CBTR shop here)