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On first reading Boochani on Manus

  • 07 May 2019


I came late to No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison, by Behrouz Boochani. I expected to find a harrowing account of life on Manus Island, accurate and unadorned. He is a brave journalist. It is indeed accurate and harrowing. But I was not expecting to be blown away by the literary quality and the epic scope of the book.

My response took me back to a similarly seminal book read in my youth. Then, too, I wondered at the epic scope of the story and the power of music in words to convey meaning. At the risk of proving myself a smarty pants I shall describe that experience because it illuminates my reading of No Friend but the Mountains.

Although I then had only a little time to myself in a very regimented day I had access to a 19th century copy of the Iliad which I read avidly. One line stays in my memory; it translates: 'He went unwillingly along the shore of the many sounding sea.' It describes the Trojan seer Chryses returning to the city. The Argive King Agamemnon had brutally refused his request to give back his daughter after seizing her as a sex slave.

I was captivated by the way the sound of the line conveyed Chryses' desolation, the splashing of waves and the loneliness of one man within the coming cosmic struggle of which he is the unknowing catalyst. Tennyson catches finely the music of the final two words in his line in Ulysses, 'The deep moans round with many voices.'

The early pages of Boochani's book had the same effect on me as did the Iliad. His description of the boat journeys to Christmas Island displayed the same captivating storytelling, the same mastery of language to make the reader hear the storm and feel drenched by the waves, the same cosmic themes of sea, storm and fate, and the same detailed attention to the way individuals responded to this crisis. The alternation of expansive narration and short italicised summary phrases, too, echoed the dialogue and choruses in Greek tragedy. The book works in three dimensions.

As in the Iliad, too, people are described with honorific titles. The swift of foot Achilles, wily Odysseus and Thersites of the long speech find their parallel in the Fat Boy, the Prophet, the Cow and the Gentle Giant. People are pared down to their characteristic stance in the story.