River of Time
M inerva paperback, 281 pp, $15, Reviewed by Imran Vittachi
CAMBODIA - once dubbed "a sideshow" - takes center stage in this gripping
eyewitness account of Indochina during the end-game of the Vietnam War.
Jon Swain's River of Time is a fine book in that it is a newspaperman's recording
of hard facts intermeshed with bittersweet personal experiences which reads like
a work of fiction.
A generation removed, Swain could well be the embodiment of Fowler, the hard-bitten
British war correspondent and protagonist of Graham Greene's literary homage to Indochina,
The Quiet American, which Swain evokes.
Cambodia was the first stop in what turned out to be a five-year Indochinese odyssey
Assigned to Phnom Penh in 1970 as a correspondent for Agence-France Presse, he arrived
here when the wars in Vietnam and Laos had already reached their climax and a cataclysm
was about to happen in Cambodia.
As soon as Swain disembarks at Pochentong airport - armed with only a camera, an
Olivetti portable, a light suitcase - he vividly captures the follies and tragedies
of Cambodia's descent into hell, as well as the upheavals which shook the other lands
of the Mekong in the 1970s. He is able to chronicle and condense all this into 281
Swain was in Cambodia on Day One of Year Zero, April 17, 1975.
His chapter on the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge and its immediate aftermath
is an example of sheerly brilliant reporting under enormously stressful conditions.
Small wonder, Swain's dispatches from Cambodia in the hours before it was plunged
into darkness earned him the 1975 Journalist of the Year honors in Britain.
Not to be overlooked too are his chapters on Vietnam. Swain's accounts of the valor
displayed by South Vietnamese soldiers on the battlefields after the Americans pulled
out their troops in 1973, as well as his tales of rape, murder and cannibalism on
the high seas following the mass exodus from the newly re-unified country are harrowing
The strength in Swain's writing is its terse - and, at times, wry - style and its
colorful assortment of characters - all real people - who make his stories so alluringly
For instance, there is the Khmer surgeon who recites Shakespeare as he extracts the
insides of a wounded soldier and slops them into a bucket.
There is also the Yorkshire woman who labels Swain a murderer, after he and others
confined to the compound of the old French chancellery in Phnom Penh, strangle, skin,
and curry the embassy cat.
And who could forget Dr Paul Grauwin, ex-chief medic of the French Expeditionary
Corps and veteran of the battle of Dien Bien Phu who dispenses wise words about refraining
from Phnom Penh's nocturnal attractions?
"Three minutes with Venus is three years with Mercury," advises the good
doctor about how to avoid being stricken by sexually transmitted diseases.
Where Swain's narrative falters, however, is in his constant use of orientalist clichés
about the "exotic beauties" of the East which will probably offend feminists.
One also has the sense that, in spite of his excellent credentials as a reporter
who risked his neck covering the Cambodian civil war, he has spent little time outside
By his own admission, Swain would go out to the front-lines in the morning, then
return to the city in time for breakfast by the pool of the hotel Le Royal - the
pre-1975 equivalent of the Foreign Correspondents Club .
As a result of knowing little about the overriding majority of Cambodians who live
in a hinterland which is being pulverized by B-52 bombers of the United States Air
Force, he makes plainly repugnant stock assumptions about Cambodia's people.
"History has demonstrated that violence as well as sensuous pleasure is intrinsic
to the Indo-Chinese character and to the Cambodians in particular," Swain writes.
"Violence is in the blood."
"Even today, after years of suffering, the Cambodians do not have a strong sense
of caring for their fellow men," he adds. "For many, morality is a luxury
to be disowned; survival and money are the ultimate objectives."
Swain, nevertheless, recognizes his limitations. Like Greene's Fowler, he does not
hide the bare truth that Westerners will always have recourse to that return-ticket
"Our abandonment of [Cambodian journalist Dith Pran] confirmed in me the belief
that we journalists were in the end just privileged passengers in transit through
Cambodia's landscape of hell... We were protected because our skins were white."
Abandonment is the theme which underscores River of Time.
It is most poignantly captured by Swain when he relates Prince Siri Matak's final
words to the Americans, as the former deputy prime minister declines an invitation
to travel on their last chopper out of Phnom Penh in April 1975.
"As for you and in particular your great country, I never believed for a moment
that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty,"
the prince writes the US embassy, only days before he would face his Khmer Rouge
"You have refused us your protection and we can do nothing about it. You leave
and it is my wish that you and your country will find happiness under the sky."