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 time in less time than a Londoner could
get to work in the morning. He watches teen-agers 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
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.