Behrouz Boochani No Friend But the Mountains
Picador, 416pp, $32.99
He has always wanted to be a man; he has always wanted to be admitted to the masculine tribe. Yet, he learns, the world is so willing to give attention, respect and unearned credit to men that he feels unable to settle comfortably within his new dispensation. He has suffered for too long the automatic downgrades due to women to accept the patriarchy’s blind self-satisfactions.
This is not a feminist critique, however. As
McBee grows accustomed to the “wounded ballet” of boxing he also discovers sympathy for men. They, too, are trapped inside systems of power that tend to promulgate violence, that can be toxic. The bloody intimacy of the sport is a potent metaphor here. McBee is willing to suffer bodily for his insights. And
their having been so hardwon, the reader cannot help but take them as evidence of wisdom. His message? None of us need be the way we are.
My other book of the year was one I commissioned at Picador via Facebook Messenger from a man I’d never met – No Friend But the Mountains: Writing
from Manus Prison by Kurdish-Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani, beautifully translated by Omid Tofighian. As Richard Flanagan notes in his foreword, the first triumph of the book is that it exists at all. Our responsibility in turn, as readers and citizens, is to absorb this epic of displacement and incarceration – then loudhail Behrouz’s testimony
• from every rooftop.
— Geordie Williamson
No Friend But the
Mountains, the electrifying “memoir of ideas” by the refugee journalist-philosopher Behrouz Boochani is my book of the year. Boochani defied every attempt of successive governments to deny refugees such as him a voice, transmitting the manuscript via text and WhatsApp messages from a smuggled-in phone to his translator and interlocutor, Omid Tofighian. Such heroic defiance alone would make it a worthy book. But this is a great book, with a voice, as The Saturday Paper review had it, that is “acerbic yet compassionate, sorrowful but never self-indulgent”.
Many good books have been written about the immigration detention regime, turned first by John Howard and then every government since into an instrument of intentional torment in the name of deterrence. Refugees, advocates, guards, teachers and others have provided a wealth of personal testimony to the system’s cruelty, as well as the humanity of its victims. Journalists have investigated its history and political progression. Boochani, writing from the inner circle of hell on Manus Island, has written an intensely personal book that blends Kurdish poetry and legend, allegory and the observation of nature (including human nature) with a theoretical framework inspired by the work of the radical feminist theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. His big idea is to apply the notion of her “Kyriarchal System” of power and control to the regime of offshore detention, exposing the internal, at times surreal, logic of both policy and practice. No Friend But the Mountains
is many things. It is poetry, philosophy, prison memoir, cri de coeur. It’s not an easy book to read, because Boochani does nothing to spare our feelings or our conscience, but it may well be the most important one you’ll read for years to come.
Sisonke Msimang’s moving memoir Always
Another Country, about a life in exile and the politics of South Africa, is another standout. Msimang describes herself as “part of a tribe, we who occupy the land of almost-belonging”. Witty and insightful, she also illustrates how the politics of race in South Africa was further complicated by gender and class. A coming-of-age tale that is at once heartbreaking, funny and warm.
I also recommend Michael Pembroke’s Korea: Where the American
Century Began. Pembroke, a New South Wales Supreme Court judge whose father served in the Korean War, exposes in chilling detail the extent of General Douglas MacArthur and the American government’s culpability in the war, including the horrors inflicted on the Koreans of the north, and on the Allied soldiers as well. The war paved the way for America’s rise as a neo-imperial superpower. It also made inevitable the ongoing conflict and suffering on the Korean peninsula today. This is history as terrifying and gripping as the best thriller.
If you’re looking for something more cheerful, go straight to the delightful
The Year of the Farmer
by Rosalie Ham. Big laughs aplenty in this comedy of manners set in a small rural
• Australian town.
— Linda Jaivin