River of Time: A Magnificent Memoir of Terror, Sensuality and Loss
River of Time by Jon Swain (Heinemann 1995).
“I'm not gonna tell the story the way it happened. I'm gonna tell it the way I remember it.”
That is the first line from Alfonso Cuaron’s 1998 film adaptation of Great Expectations. It is also the principle propelling River of Time, reporter Jon Swain’s autobiography of his years covering the wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
“Memoir” comes from the French word for memory, and Swain plays a perfect note by writing a history of his feelings – toward war, toward journalism, toward Indochina, toward a beautiful, convent-educated South Vietnamese woman named Jacqueline who found herself on the wrong side of history.
Swain was drawn to foreign reporting by the adventure and was sustained by the camaraderie he found within his adopted tribe. “There was a lot of common ground as to why we were in Cambodia,” Swain writes of his fellow correspondents. “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.”
Swain describes an almost-work-a-day routine of patrolling at dawn with soldiers, witnessing a firefight in the afternoon and enjoying the carnal comforts of East Asia as an evening reward for daytime bravery. “Amid the blood, mud and heartbreak of the battlefields, we all dreamt of savoring one delicious sensation: the moment when we would wake up, in safety, in Saigon, between clean sheets, with an exotic Vietnamese woman in our arms,” he remembers. “Sometimes we were lucky and savored a thrill utterly beyond the reach of our normal, daily, deadly world of war in the rice fields. Then, only then, did we know that we were truly alive, and perhaps the sensation gave some of us a glimpse into what Kipling meant when he wrote, ‘Eastern beds are softer.’”
Not everybody made it back to file their copy and photographs. Larry Burrows. Kent Potter. Henri Huet. Keisaburo Shimamota. All were journalists reporting one of the greatest stories of their time. All of them – and more than 300 others – died alongside the soldiers they were covering.
One of the survivors was Dith Pran. Swain, stringing for the London Sunday Times, worked with the Cambodian journalist and, in events made famous in the film The Killing Fields, Swain (played by actor Julian Sands) altered an extra passport of his in an attempt to convince authorities that Pran was a British subject. (The movie’s gripping darkroom scene is fiction. In reality, a pre-existing photo of Pran was slipped into the passport.)
Swain’s most daring literary choice was to avoid retelling the facts of the Indochinese wars. Hundreds of authors have explained what happened, cataloging the order of battle and the tonnage of bombs dropped on places like Quang Tri. River of Time is about the memories twenty years later:
“I got to know this grim area intimately, and especially during the eight-month battle for Quang Tri in the Easter 1972 communist offensive. I remember it now with nostalgia and a glint of terror. Sights and sounds spin through my head: patrols melting into the wilderness of misty rain like phantoms from the underworld; the belch of mortar rounds socking into the mud; straggly lines of refugees trudging down Highway One; dogs tearing at bodies; the constant rumble of artillery; brave smiles; helicopters against a darkening sky; the subdued moan of the wounded in the night; bullets everywhere.
“Who remembers it now?”
And how many people remember that, after the war ended, the oppression of many Vietnamese was so great that tens of thousands fled by water, the “boat people” who preferred the dangers of the sea and the uncertainty of refugee camps to life under the Communists? To these desperate families, the approach of a Thai fishing boat was a cause for hope and terror. The crew could be kindly, giving food and water. The crew could be monstrous, stealing the refugees’ belongings before raping the girls and killing them all. At least one boat of refugees descended into murder and cannibalism.
Swain saw it all. He was also kidnapped and held hostage for three months in Ethiopia. His relationship with Jacqueline fell apart because of his inability to lead a normal life. When Swain returned to Cambodia and Vietnam, he found that his world was gone, his native friends vanished and untraceable.
River of Time explains why men and women who carry notebooks and cameras, not guns, run off and go to war. Swain describes the narcotic pull of the foreign correspondent’s life, fueled in his case by adrenaline, opium and sex. He unhappily comes to understand the bitter, uneven bargain of wartime journalism: the locals who cater to the correspondents will be enriched, but, if their society collapses, the reporters will leave while their former friends and co-workers face the consequences.
“A couple of days later, I found my first real friend from the past,” Swain writes of his first post-war visit to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. “I found So Pheap. I was walking down the street near the post office and a woman in ragged black pyjamas stopped her bicycle in front of me and said shyly, ‘Jon, is it you?’ As I nodded and rushed over, I detected in her sad face a silent reproach. The Khmer Rouge had turned So Pheap from a delicate copper-skinned beauty into a rough peasant girl. Her hair was clipped short, her skin had coarsened in the sun, her rubber-sandalled feet were torn and her beautiful hands covered in sores. She was ringed by sorrow and quivered with emotion.
“ ‘Maman morte, bébé morte,’ she said, with a look of utter sadness. We arranged to meet later that evening outside the hotel. I hoped to be able to give her some money. But then my interpreter appeared, and she stiffened, gave me a last imploring glance and cycled away, terrified she would be denounced to the communist authorities for addressing a westerner. And though I searched and searched the streets of Phnom Penh for days afterwards, I never found her again.”
For reasons that I hope are now obvious, River of Time is one of the best books I’ve read in years.