No Friend But The Mountains is a masterpiece in its own right, and the circumstances of its creation make it only the more remarkable. The author, Behrouz Boochani, is a graduate of Tarbiat Moallem University and holds a Masters degree in political science, political geography and geopolitics. He has been imprisoned in Australia’s Manus Island detention centre for years, and during that time has published articles with The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Huffington Post, The Financial Times, and The Sydney Morning Herald.
This novel was produced via emails, text messages, and other forms of social media which allowed Boochani to communicate with his main translator, Omid Tofighian, and other friends who were helping in the endeavour. The messages used were sent on a smuggled phone and, as Tofighian states in his thorough, but somehow fluid and concise, introduction:
“Reading this book is difficult for any Australian. We pride ourselves on democracy, kindness, generosity, and a fair go. None of these qualities are evident in Boochani’s account of hunger, squalor, beatings, suicide and murder.”
Tofighian’s ‘Translator’s Tale’ is fascinating in itself, as he describes the process of receiving Boochani’s messages and collaborating to translate Farsi – a poetic language with a different structure – in to English. At times, the prose of the story gives way seamlessly to poetic verse, before running on once more in to prose; these are sections where Tofighian felt that he couldn’t do justice to Boochani’s writing with standard English prose, and they are often poignant and beautiful.
This is a profoundly personal story for both Boochani and those he describes. He mentions, for example, a family who had travelled from Indonesia on the same boat as him. He describes the father of the family as “Firouz With The Hazel Eyes”, and wonders what happened to their daughter Parnya, who “was a little Iranian girl of about six or seven years old who tied her hair in pigtails.”
I could go on and on quoting from Boochani’s musings and memories laid throughout this novel, but suffice it to say that he has woven a masterpiece together which teaches the reader about humanity in its many guises. It is a story of dancing, fighting, sleeping, staring, eating, crying, and dreaming. As Boochani puts it, “we are a bunch of ordinary humans locked up simply for seeking refuge.”
Despite the grim topic of this book, and some of the harrowing scenes which I think are best read in context rather than quoted here, there is much more to the book than describing destitution. Boochani analyses people and behaviours, including those of the prisoners, the guards, and the local Manusian staff. As Tofighian says:
“This book, though, is something greater than just a J’accuse. It is a profound victory for a young poet who showed us all how much words can still matter…His words have now irrevocably become our words, and our history must henceforth account for his story.”
In this novel, Boochani has woven his own experiences in to a tale which is at once beautiful and harrowing, creating a valuable contribution to Australia’s literary canon.