15 July 2002

Book Review: River of Time, by Jon Swain, *****


Between 1970 and 1975 Jon Swain, the English journalist portrayed in David Puttnam's film, "The Killing Fields", lived in the lands of the Mekong river. This is his account of those years, and the way in which the tumultuous events affected his perceptions of life and death as Europe never could. He also describes the beauty of the Mekong landscape - the villages along its banks, surrounded by mangoes, bananas and coconuts, and the exquisite women, the odours of opium, and the region's other face - that of violence and corruption.

He was in Phnom Penh just before the fall of the city to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975. He was captured and was going to be executed. His life was saved by Dith Pran, the New York Times interpreter, a story told by the film The Killing Fields. In Indo-China Swain formed a passionate love affair with a French-Vietnamese girl. The demands of a war correspondent ran roughshod over his personal life and the relationship ended.


Jon Swain spent many years in Vietnam, and obviously left his heart there. He was brave, curious and meticulous, indispensable features of a good reporter, especially a war reporter. He was also detached from his grim subject matter and therefore able to keep a balanced and unbiased approach.

He can also be rather disconcerting when he effortlessly hops from one paragraph dedicated to the global consequences of the wr to the next paragraph in which he details a brothel in Saigon. But that is part of what makes reading his book fun! He is not a politologist, and unlike many journalists does not pretend to be one!

This book provides a highly valuable account of the final years of the Vietnam War (Swain was there from 1970 to 1975) and is still highly instructive nearly forty years on.

See other reviews of books on Indochina here in this blog.

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