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Echoes of Auschwitz in Manus memoir



In July 2016 I contributed a piece on Primo Levi to Eureka Street. I briefly referred to Levi's Auschwitz incarceration, his brilliance as a scientist — his The Periodic Table was short-listed by the London Royal Institution as a candidate for the best scientific book ever written — and his untimely death. Whether tragic accident or suicide will never be known.

Behrouz Boochani's No Friend but the MountainsNo one could have been further from the world of the Romantic poets than holocaust survivor Levi yet, like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, he was haunted by traumatic memories and somehow, in some form or another, doomed to retell them.

Levi recounts details of a recurring dream in which he is back in the concentration camp at Auschwitz. The realities of the camp are so overwhelming, so pressing that they still, years later, dominate his mind, his imagination, his memory, even his sleep. He is plagued by fleeting and fragmentary images of extraordinary endurance, good and bad luck, suffering, loss, slivers of hope brutally extinguished, desperate goals:

'Today, in this place, our only purpose is to reach the Spring. At the moment we care about nothing else'; ' ... scores of prisoners driven desperate by hunger prowl around, with lips half-open and eyes gleaming, lured by a deceptive instinct to where the merchandise shown makes the gnawing of their stomachs more acute ...

'I bite deeply into my lips; we know well that to gain a small, extraneous pain serves as a stimulant to mobilise our last reserves of energy. The Kapos also know it: some of them beat us from pure bestiality and violence, but others beat us when we are under a load, almost lovingly, accompanying the blows with exhortations, as cart-drivers do with willing horses'; ' ... we unload the [railway] sleeper on the ground and I remain stiff, with empty eyes, open mouth and hanging arms, sunk in the ephemeral and negative ecstasy of the cessation of pain'.

As Jeff Sparrow points out in a splendid piece in the Sydney Review of Books (21 September 2018), 'One hesitates to invoke Auschwitz in a discussion of Australia's asylum seeker detention regime, a system that, for all its horrors, does not implement genocide.' It is, however, tremendously difficult not to be haunted by the well-known images and, in concluding my reflection on Primo Levi in July 2016, I wrote, with no sense or implication whatsoever of prescience, merely blind hope:

'Some day, one of Australia's asylum seekers, of whose suffering Immigration Minister Peter Dutton seems simultaneously both proud and oblivious, will, like Levi and with the same sense of dread and horror, tell his or her story to ensure that someone bears witness.'


"For all its wrenching power and deserved literary accolades, No Friend but the Mountains is unlikely to make much impression on a philistine, opportunistic government."


Well, 'some day' has arrived. Asylum seeker Behrouz Boochani's testament No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison is a scarifying, beautifully moving, profound, painfully wrought personal consideration of the Manus Island detention centre. Among other effects, prison, in Boochani's words, 'maintains its power over time; the power to keep people in line. Fenced enclosures dominate and can pacify even the most violent person — those imprisoned on Manus are themselves sacrificial subjects of violence.

'We are a bunch of ordinary humans locked up simply for seeking refuge. In this context, the prison's greatest achievement might be the manipulation of feelings of hatred between one another ...'

For all its wrenching power and deserved literary accolades, No Friend but the Mountains is unlikely to make much impression on a philistine, opportunistic government which will readily use the sufferings of 'humans locked up simply for seeking refuge' if this will buy them votes. But lonely, eloquent figures like Boochani, who emerge from the squalor — ragged, unkempt, brutalised — won't finally stay 'in line ... fenced ... pacified ... sacrificial subjects of violence'. And more and more Australians, it seems, are beginning to realize that our asylum seeker policies constitute, in the words of Omid Tofighian, Boochani's translator, 'a modern form of systematic torture'.

In a national parliament where a senior senator announced she had 'never heard of' the Final Solution'; where a fellow senator tied himself in knots trying to justify his use of that phrase; where members pay lip service to something called the Westminster System which they seem scarcely to understand and which they and their leader ignore if it suits them; where 'Stopping the Boats' has been commemorated for one senior member with a trophy and masquerades as a political clarion call, there seems not much hope for human decency.

Nevertheless, like Primo Levi in his works, Behrouz Boochani's No Friend but the Mountains exemplifies among many other things 'the possibilities of human decency' despite the Manus prison's squalor. Like George Orwell in another time and place, he is buoyed by hope in irrepressible nature.

In tropical flowers Boochani detects a 'zeal for resistance/A tremendous will for life bursting out from the coils and curves of the stems/Bodies stretching out to reveal themselves for all to witness ... ' and, despite horrors and deprivations, the flowers fill him with love.



Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Primo Levi, Nazi Germany, Behrouz Boochani, Manus Island, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

Brian, thank you for such an eloquent assessment with appropriate parallels. Many Australians holiday in what appears to be a tropical paradise - Thailand - where I live. In the heart of Bangkok is the city's own Black Hole of Calcutta which puts a different shape on the tropical paradise. There and for many years, asylum seekers languish with out charge and indefinitely and for years, some even longer than those on Manus and Nauru, tapped in grossly overcrowded cells for all but a few hours a day, fed gruel and with all of 100cmX40cm to lie down and sleep. I'm doing as much as I can to get as many out as possible. Primo Levi and our author on Manus know what they're going through. Thanks for your piece. MICK

Michael Kelly | 28 March 2019  

Thank heaven for those who bear witness. This morning on ABC Radio National there were reports of ten-year-old children in a detention centre (in Brisbane) being confined for up to ten days in cells without beds, toilets, or running water for daring to protest about the appalling conditions in which they were usually detained. Recently the same source reported that children are being imprisoned from the age of TEN in the adult system. No prizes for guessing which sector of the populace those thus brutalised are overwhelmingly drawn from. The number of First Nations children driven to taking their own lives is even more appalling, but then the abuses are not unrelated. "Poor Fella, My Country" was the title of a novel by Xavier Herbert. There is too much sorry business, and not enough people of conscience among the smirking politicians. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Jena Woodhouse | 28 March 2019  

I’m still trying to get my head around the Orwellian newspeak of this article. Seriously ... is Brian Matthews trying to equate Manus Island with the horrors of Auschwitz etc? Does he really think that the systematic massacre of over 12 million people (Jews and non-Jews), the brutal slave labour conditions imposed on the survivors forced to subsist on starvation rations ranks with the situation on Manus – and Nauru? And let’s not forget the sickening newsreel footage taken when the first Allied forces entered the camps in 1945. The ghastly sight of piles of dead bodies being pushed with a bull-dozer, skeletal corpses lying everywhere, the hollow eyes of the living dead, so utterly traumatised by the horrors they’ve endured they’ve been reduced to an almost catatonic state. By comparison, the detainees on Manus and Nauru are fed three times a day, are not made to work at all, are not brutally massacred and systematically tortured at the wim of sadistic guards and are given proper medical treatment. They also have access to internet and other facilities. To liken their situation to that of Nazi concentration camp inmates is an insult to the memory of the latter and their heroic chronicler Primo Levi! Only the wretched conditions of millions genuine asylum-seekers living in disease-ridden refugee camps in the Middle East subsisting on basic rations, or the Rohingyas enduring equally awful conditions in Bangla Desh, would even remotely resemble those in Nazi death camps. Yet until the boats were stopped no such poor people could enter Australian under our Humanitarian Intake scheme because their places had already been taken by well-heeled so-called asylum-seekers coming in by sea! Yet rarely did the asylum-seeker lobby express any concern for the people rotting in refugee camps while so noisily attacking federal government efforts to stop the boats.

Dennis | 28 March 2019  

“Manus Days—The Untold Story of Manus Island” by Michael Coates also tells a story about asylum seekers by someone who worked on Manus Island. It talks of different groups, of genuine refugees, and of others who’d spent months partying and on drugs before getting into boats. Some caused lots of strife and damage, and abused local islanders, and were encouraged by refugee activists in order to provide maximum media propaganda. Journalist Chris Kenny visited Nauru in 2015 and reported that refugees were free to roam the island like Nauruan and PNG citizens. 60 refugees have chosen to settle in PNG. That’s unsurprising. I recall ABC journalist Sean Dorney, whose wife comes from Manus, fondly describing the island and its people whom he had come to love. But Kenny was roundly abused by Left-wing journalists. He’d not followed the favoured narrative. In the USA, not following the favoured narrative can get you banned from the airways. Alan Dershowitz, a life-long Democrat and former Harvard law professor, smelt a rat in the phoney Russia collusion story about Donald Trump. But he could only get a hearing on Fox News which the Left hates. Dershowitz and Fox have been proven correct.

Ross Howard | 30 March 2019  

Thank you for your article. As a paediatrician trying to understand the pathogenesis of “Resignation Syndrome” in children I was involved with on Nauru, I too see appropriate parallels. These relate to a lack of meaning and hopelessness felt by these kids who would rather be dead. I fear many will have futures of ongoing recall of the horror of their trauma, particularly as many continue to undergo deliberate dehumanisation whilst in detention in Australia.

Paul Bauert | 31 March 2019  

Thank you for that powerful comparison with Auschwitz. When will the hearts of politicians be touched by what they have done to our asylum seekers?

Elizabeth Morris | 02 April 2019  

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