No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison by Behrouz Boochani, Picador, 2018, ISBN: 9781760555382, 374 pages, AU$15 from Amazon Australia.
TUMBY BAY - I’ve been holding off reading this book for a while. I’m not really sure why.
Perhaps it’s because I couldn’t face the misery and the pathos of that I thought it would depict. Perhaps it’s because of the sense of shame that I thought it would provoke.
Now that I’ve read it I’m glad that I did. Behrouz Boochani is a fine writer and misery and pathos are not things he keeps in his kitbag.
I think what also deterred me was my own middle class and comfortable life and the leap I needed to make to imagine what incarceration on Manus might be like.
This was despite the fact that I had been there in 2014 and had visited the detention centre.
The physicality of the centre was not so much the issue. It didn’t look a lot different to some of the mining camps I have worked in over the years.
What I couldn’t imagine was the anxiety and endless boredom that the inmates had to bear. To me that would be insufferable.
At best I could last about eight weeks in a mining camp before I had to leave but these men on Manus had been there for years. What that had done to their minds and their sanity was unimaginable.
What I also didn’t realise was the sorts of places from which these men came seeking refuge. Not for them was there some prior comfortable and insular lifestyle.
Behrouz, like most of his fellow inmates was a child of war.
“My earliest childhood memories are of warplanes ruthlessly raiding the skies,” he writes. “Warplanes splitting the sky over a village nestled within forests of chestnut oak trees; my earliest childhood memories are of fear that ran deep within our bones.”
The mountains in the title of the book are the ones where Kurdish people fled during these times of conflict to live in caves and abandoned villages.
Breaking down people from that sort of background, which was always the Australian government’s intent, was never going to be easy but they tried their hardest anyway.
There is, however, one thing that distinguishes Behrouz from his fellow inmates and that is the fact that he is an insular, introspective and self-contained individual.
While he is a fellow traveller in the refugee journey he is also an observer rather than a participant in day-to-day events. Whether this is because he is a writer or because of other circumstances is not clear but it gives him a kind of emotional armour and resilience that others do not possess.
He is a man who thinks and he has an exceptional ability to articulate what he thinks about in his writing. And on Manus he had a lot of time to think. This is what is so precious about this book.
Many of the things he writes about would be mundane if it were not for the extraordinary circumstances in which they occur. It is that context which makes what he says so fascinating and provocative.
It’s not all philosophy however. There are heart rendering accounts that in a lesser writer’s hands could turn to pathos and be hard to bear.
There is the The Father Of The Months-Old Child who has received a message that his own father is dying and wants to talk to him one last time. He rushes to the long telephone queue and pleads to be allowed to jump to the head of the line.
His friend, The Man With The Thick Moustache, pleads with the guards on his behalf. “This man must be permitted to make a call immediately,” he says.
But the Australian guard is adamant, no one can jump the queue and must wait until it is their section of the compounds day to use the telephones. The argument goes on and on but to no avail.
Some days later Behrouz sees The Father Of The Months-Old Child covered in bruises. When he eventually got to a telephone days later it was only to discover that his father had already died.
He reacts by smashing the phone against the wall and the guards pounce on him, subdue him and drag him off to a solitary confinement cell.
Behrouz relates this incident and others like it not so much to tug at our heartstrings but to illustrate the inanity and evil intent of the rules governing the detention centre and the lack of empathy among the thugs employed as guards.
In this case he is referring to the Australian guards. He has no illusions about the Papua New Guinean guards who are there as tokens and totally subordinate to the Australians.
He sees the Papua New Guinean guards largely as benign creatures happy to spend their days stoned on betel nut and asleep in the shade,
He also has a soft spot for the Papua New Guinean people on Manus. He sees them as much as victims of Australian and Papua New Guinean politicians as he and his fellow refugees.
One day when all the bastards who concocted and participated in this sordid episode in Australia and Papua New Guinea’s history have been brought to account or have more likely just faded into ignominy and when the apologists have run out of excuses and the historians have analysed it to death all that will remain will be Behrouz Boochani’s words.
That is always the fate of good literature and I can’t think of anything better to patch such a suppurating wound.
Behrouz Boochani would have made a great Australian.
Given his background he would have been a welcome addition to our intellectual pool and maybe an offset, just slightly, to the mediocrity of the politicians who imprisoned him for no good reason.
He was held on Manus from 2013 to 2017. In September 2019 he was moved to Port Moresby along with the other detainees.
On 14 November 2019 he went to Christchurch in New Zealand on a one-month visa, as a guest speaker at a literary festival as well as other speaking events.
In December 2019, his one month visa to New Zealand expired. He is currently there on an expired visa.
This is a many faceted book that incorporates many things, ranging from Kurdish traditions and aspirations, to the particular form of systematic torture incorporated in the rationale that informs Australia’s border-industrial complex.
Behrouz chose to present these many facets as literature rather than a straight academic discourse and I think that will be what makes the book endure for future generations.