No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison by Behrouz Boochani (Pan Macmillan Australia)
Behrouz Boochani’s No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison has made a major impact not just in Australia, but also internationally. A whole range of critics and commentators have emphatically praised the special qualities of this book. Robert Manne described it as “almost certainly the most important Australian book published in 2018”, while Dennis Altman described it as the “standout book of the year”, and Maxine Beneba Clarke wrote that “every Australian household should have a copy”.
No Friend But the Mountains is not just remarkable for the circumstances of its production – composed primarily through WhatsApp messages and then carefully and skilfully translated from Farsi by Omid Tofighian and arranged into a coherent and striking form by the editors at Pan Macmillan – or for its shocking and compelling content, which traces Boochani’s attempt to cross to Australia from Indonesia on a leaking boat, conveys the everyday suffering and resistance within the camps on Manus Island and culminates in the protests of February 2014 and the murder of the Iranian detainee Reza Barati. The book is also an outstanding work of literature in its own right.
Typically, reports from inside Australia’s detention centres are made in broken English or rough, hasty translations, giving a distorted picture of the context and the individuals lingering within it. With this book, for the first time, we hear the experience of living inside these centres recounted in Boochani’s own voice, which is eloquent, scathing and poetic. The book mixes novelistic, narrative prose with more fragmentary, poetic impressions, delicately portraying the grinding, monotonous experience of exile and detention, the hectic fear of life-threatening situations, and the constant yearning for freedom that animates the author’s refusal of his incarceration. Boochani also seeks to analyse and theorise the dehumanising effect of such detention on both on the body and psyche.
No Friend But the Mountains demonstrates the power of literature in the face of tremendous adversity. It adds a vital voice to Australian social and political consciousness, and deserves to be recognised for its contribution to Australian cultural life.