The author of this book, Jon Swain, was born in London but spent his childhood in India. His father was the manager of a vast estate for a large Anglo-Indian company. When the family returned to England the author couldn’t settle in England. He always felt like in outsider.
Driven by an inner restlessness and a thirst for adventure he decided to move to France and enlist in the French Foreign Legion. This turned out not to be a long stint because of something he disclosed on his enlistment form: “journalistic aspirations”. The Legion wasn’t too pleased with this and they decided to let him go.
Jon Swain became a correspondent for The Sunday Times in Paris and was soon sent out to Indochina. He spent five years in this troubled part of Asia where he lived through some harrowing moments. Despite the raging war, the violence and the corruption he fell in love with the sheer beauty and mystique of Vietnam and Cambodia. A fellow journalist put it like this when he first arrived in Cambodia: “Indochina is like a beautiful woman; she overwhelms you and you never quite understand why”.
What makes this book appealing is the honesty and openness with which he describes certain situations. As a journalist he constantly has the feeling of being a privileged person “in transit” through other people’s lives. When he goes from one story to the next he feels like he’s deserting people and leaving them to their fate.
The Author’s full name is John Ancketill Brewer Swain. If you’ve seen the gripping movie “The Killing Fields” then this name might ring a bell. During the fall of Phnom Penh the last shelter for foreigners was the French Embassy. Among the people who were stuck there were the American journalist Sydney Schanberg and his Cambodian assistant Dith Pran. With the Khmer Rouge at the gates of the embassy the latter needed a foreign passport to be eligible for evacuation.
The author sacrificed his passport so they could forge one for Dith Pran. Hence Pran became “John Ancketill Brewer”. You might remember the scene from the movie where Pran walks around repeating “John Ancketill Brewer” over and over again. In the end it was to no avail: the forged passport just didn’t look real enough. Pran took the decision and handed himself over the Khmer Rouge.
Merely because of the fact that his skin was white was the author able to escape capture by the Khmer Rouge. At this point the author expresses his shame and feeling of guilt about abandoning a man who had days before saved his life.
Other events described in this book are the fall of Saigon and Jon Swain’s kidnapping in Eritrea. The latter being an ordeal that lasted three months.