20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Author, Behrouz Boochani, Book review, memoir, Non-fiction, Papua New Guinea, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison’ by Behrouz Boochani

Non-fiction – paperback; Picador; 374 pages; 2018. Translated from Farsi by Omid Tofighian

To be honest, I don’t know where to begin with “reviewing” this book. I read it more than a month ago now, and every time I sit down to try to commit my thoughts to this blog the words won’t come.

It’s an astonishing and lyrical account of a cruel and inhumane life at the hands of a cruel and inhumane government. It makes for very powerful reading, but it also serves to make the reader feel powerless. I have not been able to shake the uncomfortable fug that enveloped me as I read this.

For those of you who don’t know, No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison is a true-life account of what it is like to be caught up in Australia’s shameful offshore immigration detention system. It was written by Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian writer, journalist, poet, scholar and filmmaker, who has been detained on Manus Island since 2013.

Boochani’s tale, tapped out on a mobile phone, text message by text message, and smuggled out via WhatsApp, was translated from Farsi by Omid Tofighian, and it is bookended by a foreword by Australian author Richard Flanagan, a lengthy translator’s introduction explaining how the book came into being and a similarly lengthy essay by the translator at the very end.

It first came to prominence earlier this year when it won the Victorian Prize for Literature — the single most valuable literary award in the country — and the Prize for Non-Fiction at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards 2019. But since then it has also won the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award, the Australian Book Industry’s non-fiction book of the year and Australia’s National Biography Award.

Ironically, Boochani has not been able to accept any of those awards in person. Although the Manus Island detention centre closed in 2017, he has remained on the island since then — effectively stateless.

An collaborative memoir

The memoir — which Tofighian describes as “literary experimentation” and a “collaborative effort between author, translator, consultants and confidants” — reads very much like an adventure tale to begin with, before morphing into an almost Kafa-esque depiction of prison life.

It charts how Boochani decided to flee Iran when the offices of Werya, the Kurdish magazine he co-founded and produced, was raided by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which arrested 11 of his colleagues. Fortunately, he was not in the office that day. In fact, he never went back. Instead, he went into hiding and eventually made his way to Indonesia, with a view to making a perilous ocean crossing to seek asylum in Australia.

But things did not go as planned. The Indonesian boat he was on, overcrowded with some 60 asylum seekers, was intercepted by the Australian Navy.  Everyone on board was taken to Christmas Island.

Early in the morning, at six, guards came in like debt collectors and heaved us out of bed. Within a few minutes they took us to a tightly confined cage. It is now almost two hours since they brought us here. These hours have been really tough. It is hard being imprisoned…being locked in a cage. We have now been in prison on Christmas Island for a whole month. It is hard being a prisoner.

From there, Boochani was moved to the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre, a detention centre in Papua New Guinea operated by the Australian Government. He was stripped of his name and, like every other prisoner, became known as a number only.

I can’t believe what is happening to me /
All that hardship /
All that wandering from place to place /
All that starvation I had to endure /
All of it… /
So that I could arrive on Australian soil /
I cannot believe I am now being exiled to Manus /
A tiny island out in the middle of the ocean

The rest of the book is a mix of eloquent, heart-felt poetry (as per the quote above), bitter diatribes about his predicament and observational stories about fellow prisoners and guards told with amazing psychological insight. It’s an almost soporific account of day-to-day life on Manus and what happens — or doesn’t happen — on those endlessly long, supernaturally hot days in detention.

It brims with a slow-burning anger but it is also filled with perplexity and confusion, for how could a country, so highly regarded, so wealthy and free, treat innocent people in such a cruel, dehumanising way?

Boochani’s story is littered with suicides (much sought-after razor blades being the instrument of choice) and horrendous examples of already traumatised men, many fleeing persecution and certain death at the hands of authorities in their respective homelands, now enduring further mental anguish.

His account is a valuable insight into what happens to men, cut off from family and vital support networks, when they are subjected to inhumane treatment. He depicts the infighting, the emotional outbursts, the acts of moral cowardice, the riots, the hunger strikes, the way that certain people cling to their traditions and cultures when everything around them is foreign and frightening.

And he writes about his own inner turmoil, his desire to be alone, to not build allegiances with anyone, to quietly observe — and secretly document — all that he sees around him.

Compelling and confronting

There’s no doubting that No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison is an extraordinary achievement. The contents are compelling and confronting, as is the story behind its creation.

Reading it is to become almost immune to the shock of all that Boochani endures. I suspect his writing, not only of this book but the many articles he has penned for the Guardian, the Sydney Morning Herald, The Financial Times et al while being imprisoned, has given him the creative outlet he needs to preserve his sanity — and his hope. He is a very cerebral person and a deep thinker.

It’s the kind of book that induces anger and shame in the reader. But it’s the sheer injustice of this system and the total lack of empathy and compassion towards our fellow humans that leaves me feeling most perplexed. I cannot comprehend it. Nor can I comprehend the waste — of time, of energy, of productive human lives — to maintain a policy that is so hostile and destructive.

Sadly, the people who need to read No Friend but the Mountains most — those that think asylum seekers should go back to where they come from, the policymakers, government officials and contractors that prop up this system — won’t read it. But if you’re an Australian, I almost think it’s your duty to do so, if only to know what is being done in your name.

For another take on this book, please see Bill’s review at The Australian Legend.

This half-hour documentary (above) is a moving account of how Boochani wrote the book and smuggled it out.

This is my 13th book for #20BooksOfSummer. I bought it on Kindle after it won the Victorian Prize for Literature, but the copy I actually read was borrowed from Fremantle Library. 

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Michelle de Krester, Publisher, Setting, Sri Lanka

‘Questions of Travel’ by Michelle de Kretser

Questions-of-travel

Fiction – hardcover; Allen & Unwin; 528 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

If books won prizes for ambition alone, Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel should win every gong going. This is a “widescreen” novel that explores the interconnectedness of our lives brought about by the advent of the internet, cheap travel and globalisation.

Dual narrative

The book spans 40 years and follows two characters — Australian Laura Fraser and Sri Lankan Ravi Mendis — whose tales are divided into two separate narrative threads. These two characters are poles apart, not least the ways in which they travel the globe.

Laura is a drifter, who has the freedom to travel across the world wherever her Australian passport might take her; Ravi is forced to flee Sri Lanka under difficult circumstances and seeks political asylum in Australia, never knowing whether he will be shipped back home against his will.

The pair eventually meet, but that’s not really the climax, nor purpose, of the story, which covers  many issues and topics associated with “travel”, including the way in which the development of the internet and cheap personal computers made the world smaller. Indeed, following these character’s lives is a journey in itself.

Laura, who uses an inheritance to travel around the world, leads the kind of life to which many of us might aspire. But even though she lives in London for several years, there are pitfalls to never putting roots down in one place — she doesn’t have a proper career, nor a settled relationship. But when she returns to Sydney and begins working for a travel guide company (a thinly disguised version of Lonely Planet), there is no miracle “cure” for her dislocation.

By contrast, Ravi, an academic who develops one of the first websites and understands the potential of the internet, has no choice but to leave his homeland following the brutal murder of his wife and young son. When he seeks political asylum in Australia there is the constant fear that he will be returned home, even though he would love to see other family members and continue his life before it was so viciously interrupted.

Thoughtful and intelligent

There’s no doubt that Questions of Travel is a thoughtful and intelligent novel, the type of novel that doesn’t shy away from exploring big issues — in fact, on more than one occasion it reminded me very much of last year’s Giller Prize-winning novel, 419, by Will Ferguson, which was equally ambitious in scope and outlook.

But this is also one of those rare books that is all about the detail — incredible detail. Indeed, there’s so much detail in this book, it requires a lot of concentration and attention from the reader. It is not an effortless read. It is not a book to rush through.

Because of this it took a long time for me to get “into” the story and, just occasionally, I found it dragged in places. This may be partly to do with the author’s prose style, which felt convoluted and “showy”, but once I got used to it, I enjoyed her descriptions, particularly of objects and places, which were evocative and often quite beautiful. Likewise, her characters are wonderful — quirky, original, authentic and memorable.

But it is the little revelations, scattered throughout the narrative, that makes the book such an entertaining and often surprising read. And the ending, which almost made me fall off my chair with the shock of it, is one of the most powerful and totally unexpected conclusions I’ve ever read in contemporary fiction. Weeks later I’m still thinking about it — just as I am also thinking about all the many issues thrown up by this extraordinary, eloquent and deeply moving novel.

Africa, Author, Book review, Chris Cleave, England, Fiction, Publisher, Sceptre, Setting

‘The Other Hand’ by Chris Cleave

OtherHand

Fiction – paperback; Sceptre; 378 pages; 2009.

Chris Cleave’s The Other Hand was shortlisted for the 2008 Costa Novel Award. It is one of those books I kept picking up in bookstores and then putting down. I was intrigued but also skeptical. The blurb, surely, was a marketing ploy?

This is what the blurb on my edition says:

“We don’t want to tell you what happens in this story. It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it. Nevertheless, you need to know enough to buy it so we will just say this: This is the story of two women. Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice. Two years later, they meet again — the story starts there… Once you have read it, you’ll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don’t tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds.”

And then Valerie, who reads my blog emailed me, to suggest I might like it. “I expected to see it listed as one of the books you have reviewed,” she wrote. “And when I didn’t, I decided to email you.  It is one of those books you want to tell a friend about…”

I relented and bought myself a copy the next day. I’ll admit I still wasn’t convinced, and the letter from the editor, on the very first page, only raised my hackles. “Dear Reader,” it began. “You don’t know me. I’m Chris Cleave’s editor, and I’m writing to tell you how extraordinary The Other Hand is. As publishers, naturally we only publish  books that we love, but every now and then something comes along that is so special it gives us goosebumps.”

She then compares the novel to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark. By this stage the phrase “she doth protest to much” was running through my head.

Still, I was prepared to banish my preconceptions and give the book a fair go, and I raced through it in a matter of days.

Obviously, I can’t tell you much about the plot, but I can tell you what I thought of the story.

Quite frankly, I didn’t think it lived up to the hype. It’s an interesting story and it moves along at a fair old pace. There are scenes that are truly shocking and others that are good for a giggle. The characterisation is good, although not entirely believable, and there’s enough social commentary to give the illusion that you’re reading something deep and meaningful.

But on the whole this is a book that feels manipulative. The “reveals” — almost one per chapter — are cheap tricks designed to give you a fright or challenge your assumptions. While they might add some excitement to the novel, they end up trivialising quite important subject matter — illegal immigration, suicide and violence, to name but a few.

Perhaps Cleave didn’t want to write a hard-hitting novel and that’s fine, but as soon as your editor starts comparing you to Schindler’s Ark, one of the most hard-hitting novels of the past 40 years, it creates a pretty monumental and, dare I say it, unrealistic expectation in the average reader’s mind.

I suspect The Other Hand, which has been published in the USA and Canada under the title Little Bee, will resonate with readers who like quick, accessible reads about unfamiliar subjects, but for me it was too superficial, too cartoonish and too calculating to deliver on its promises. If you’ve read it I’d be interested in knowing what you thought. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion I may well be the only person in the world who didn’t love it to bits…