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River of Time: A Memoir of Vietnam and Cambodia Paperback – October 1, 1999

4.4 out of 5 stars 41 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

British journalist Swain will be familiar to many as one of the Western newsmen who worked so tirelessly to save their Cambodian colleague Dith Pran from the Khmer Rouge in the early days of the Communist victory in Cambodia. Presently a reporter for the Sunday Times, Swain spent five years in Cambodia and South Vietnam as a war correspondent. Those years were a time of American retreat, Khmer Rouge and North Vietnamese victory, and seemingly unendurable suffering for the civilians of both countries caught in between the several armies. Written as a journalist's memoir, this is not a well-researched, definitive historical account of the Communist victory but an emotional, impressionistic view of the tragic experiences of people like Dith Pran who find themselves forced to deal with events far beyond their ability to control them. Already published in England, Swain's sympathetic portrayal of the collapse of Cambodia and South Vietnam is suitable for comprehensive Vietnam War collections.?John R. Vallely, Siena Coll. Lib., Loudonville, N.Y.
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Kirkus Reviews

A British foreign correspondent's often stirring chronicle of his life and times covering the war in Indochina during the years 197075. Swain, an award-winning Sunday Times of London reporter, looks back at the most memorable moments of his life: his assignments in Phnom Penh and Saigon during the last five years of the American war in Indochina. He does so with a no-frills memoir that also contains, among other things, his trips back to Cambodia and Vietnam in the 1980s, and his three-month kidnapping by revolutionaries in Ethiopia in the late 1970s. The heart of the book, though, is Swain's white-hot recreation of the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge. Acting on ``an irresistible impulse,'' Swain scrambled aboard the last flight into Phnom Penh from Bangkok on April 12, 1975. Along with several other journalists, he witnessed the first weeks of the infamous Killing Fields, the holocaust waged by the Khmer Rouge against the Cambodian people. Swain's account of the insane forced evacuation of the entire population of refugee-swelled Phnom Penh is not for the faint of heart. He sets out in often gruesome detail what he calls ``the greatest caravan of human misery'' he saw ``in five years of war.'' Swain includes an account of his personal brush with death, after he and the American journalist Sidney Schanberg and the latter's Cambodian assistant, Dith Pran, were detained by guerillas and threatened with execution. Swain's version of that incident, and of Dith Pran's subsequent surrender to the Khmer Rouge, jibes with what Schanberg wrote in ``The Death and Life of Dith Pran'' (on which the movie The Killing Fields was based). Swain, Schanberg, and Pran lived through their Cambodian nightmare. But Swain also tells the stories of many others who perished along with hundreds of thousands of their fellow Cambodians. An accomplished memoir that will be remembered for its evocation of the horrors of the Cambodian Killing Fields. -- Copyright ©1997, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Berkley (October 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0425168050
  • ISBN-13: 978-0425168059
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.8 x 7.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #633,117 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By P. Elkin on June 14, 2000
Format: Hardcover
When I first became aware of Swain's book, my initial thought was, "Another war correspondent's attempt to cash in on the 25th anniversary of the fall of Indo-China." I bought the book, but more because of my current mania for the subject, not because I expected much out of it.
Swain began to win me over right away. He begins the book with much the same sentiment as I expressed above. The author himself wonders what he can add to what's been written before.
The answer is: A lot.
Swain's style fits the subject: factual, but with humanity; horrified without being overwhelmed. The author's self-professed love for Indo-China is evident. The depth of his feelings enabled me to see and feel the end of Indo-China as it had been.
The highlight of the book is the description of the fall of Phnom Penh and the immediate aftermath. I have read several accounts of these events, written by Cambodians and Westerners, and I have seen "The Killing Fields". None of those tellings hold a candle to Swain's description. The misery, chaos, horror, insanity, and inhumanity comes to life in his words.
Swain's work takes it's place among the best of the field.
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By A Customer on April 4, 2000
Format: Paperback
I feel a little sorry for a few of the reviewers who have gone before me. I think they may be missing the point. The book does not attempt to provide in-depth military facts, nor is it an attempt at writing a 'suspense thriller', nor is it fiction. Rather, it is portrayal of the experiences of one man [and his friends'] during times of conflict [largely] in Indochina. It is a book of truth and emotion, of beauty and futility, of love and war. Ultimately, it is a book about humanity. Jon Swain has done well, and this book would be a welcome addition to the bookshelves of anyone who is interested in human conflict, Indochina or personal accounts of life in times of extremely adverse and uncertain conditions.
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Format: Hardcover
"River of Time" is perhaps the most intimate account yet published by the war correspondents and journalists who came of age in Southeast Asia. The author goes to great lengths to reveal all, even aspects which he knows many readers will find personally unflattering. This work is an emotional one totally different in tone from his colleague Robert Sam Anson's more hard-edged but equally distinguished work on the same subject, "War News". Unable to shake his admitted addition to seeking both the truth and personal fame in pursuit of same, Swain abandoned the love of his life for what became yet another hostage experience in Africa. His more recent brushes with death in East Timor show that his one-track obsession with his vocation remains intact. All those who once lost their hearts to Southeast Asia will see a little of themselves in Jon Swain's realistic and accurate self-portrait. A valuable work by a charming an complex man widely admired by his colleagues in the field and by his readers around the world.
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Format: Hardcover
Cambodia was beautiful when Swain first arrived and he, a young journalist, relished it all, from the natural beauty of the country to the fine French food and legal opium dens. Trouble was coming though, although no one at that time could have imagined the horror.
Swain also went to Vietnam, which at the time was full of Americans. He rode on helicopters out to the battlefield, helped rescue victims of a bombing in a movie theater, and fell in love. His descriptions and experiences, from a British point of view, adds his own special twist to the vast body of work I have read about Vietnam by Americans.
In spite of the danger, he voluntarily returned to Cambodia to experience the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge and would have been executed if it were not for the intervention of Dith Pran, the Cambodian journalist who is best known for his role in the movie The Killing Fields. Swain was captive in the French Embassy and experienced the agony of families being torn apart and marched off to their brutal deaths.
All of these experiences are captured in riveting detail and I couldn't put the book down in spite of the gruesome realistic details on every page. There are horrors, adventure and a lust for writing a good story and reporting the truths to the world. I applaud him and the profession of journalism for that.
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Format: Hardcover
Fantastic memoir of Jon Swain's time in Indochina, an extremely poignant and personal summary of a tragic war. I purchased this book "for something to read", but found myself moved to tears. I would highly recommend this to anyone interested in the plight of the Cambodians. Such a great lesson could have been learnt, unfortunately we now see a repeat occurrence in East Timor.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
What a transition! "River" begins like a two-star autobiography of a self-centered journalist whose experiences with the country he writes about were confined to brothels or brief hedonistic excursions to the front lines (le Carre described such journalists as "war tourists"). However, when the author witnesses the Khmer Rouge taking over Cambodia in 1975, "River" abruptly and masterfully changes into a documentary of Hell. No painting, no movie, no poem could ever convey the comprehensive description of horror the author gives as the communists took over and began their auto-genocide in Cambodia. So many people promised a Worker's Paradise in Southeast Asia if America departed; instead, the region became an epic human catastrophe.

The author writes well, and his style changes right along with the subject matter. He begins arrogantly enough, but as he encounters the Khmer Rouge takeover -- the fierce hatred in their faces while they shove hospital patients, with their bandages and IV lines, into the streets -- the author transitions into a strange kind of detachment, which doubtlessly helped him survive some intense psychological trauma. It seems unbelievable that humans could do all he describes, but other authors and sources back up the events, so I am left believing him.

At the end of the book, the author returns to postwar Vietnam and looks for a trace of its former identity amidst the destitution and depression. He finds his girlfriend's old cat near their former apartment, and it seems only the cat's combination of emotional aloofness, wariness around people, and ability to take advantage of Luck have allowed it to survive while so many humans perished, either mentally or physically.

I bought this book to help prepare for a medical trip to Cambodia, and it helped understand what the people endured. Perhaps this book shows, no matter how optimistic we may be about the potential of the human spirit, we must also be cautious.
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