- No Friend but the Mountains:A Reflection
Narrative art can be a useful medium for recasting the lived experiences of human communities. Behrouz Boochani’s 2018 memoir No Friend but the Mountains recounts the plight of refugees from war-ravaged countries, refreshing our perspectives on the intensity with which Oceania is touched by geopolitical activities elsewhere. It also tells the story of Australia’s actions in Oceania decades after decolonization, illustrating local activists’ and agents’ impotence in the face of Australian geopolitics and regional domination. These actions and the moral and practical collaboration of regional governments with Australia have absolutely challenged my sense of the contemporary Pacific, and I have found regional news reports, critical analyses, and even profound conversations with regional experts to be unsatisfying. When confronted with instances of injustice, such as refugee (ie, prison) islands, what tools do we have to unpack lived experiences and moral and political complexities and subtleties alike? At times, narrative and storytelling can open up spaces for discussion and provide understandings that are not always possible through traditional scholarly writing. This point has notably been made in Pacific studies. As Epeli Hau‘ofa demonstrated in his own narrative works, such as his 1983 short story collection Tales of the Tikongs, serious and complicated matters can be addressed.
No Friend but the Mountains is a riveting book that reflects on the collective human struggle for dignity and justice. It illustrates one of the most coordinated and efficient systems of deterrence against the perceived scourge of illegal immigration. Operating with clockwork efficiency, the ultimate aim of Australia’s offshore processing strategy is to break the will of anyone illegally entering Australian territorial space and to deter anyone thinking of coming to Australia by sea in the future (see Salyer, [End Page 461] this issue). As the book demonstrates, this policy works perfectly under a veil of secrecy and through the use of different instruments of intimidation and fear that are at the disposal of Australia, a resourceful state intent on protecting itself and its citizens.
In the context of global and regional concerns about humanitarian crises,No Friend but the Mountains is an invaluable piece of writing. The complicity of supposed democratic states in perpetuating gross human rights violations is laid bare, and asylum seekers are recast in a new light. Writing about serious issues of justice and human rights, Boochani weaves together tragedy and human triumph over injustice through colorful metaphors, descriptive language, and perhaps the occasional embellishment for narrative effect. While there is academic value in No Friend but the Mountains, the style of presentation and the use of poetry, though seemingly out of place in an otherwise depressing text, also likely had therapeutic value for Boochani, perhaps as a form of escapism. In his own words, Boochani explains: “I learned there were practices of escape. Necessary practices of escape, signifying practices. Practices of escape that reform real-life encounters into fantastic scenes and incidents, reformulate reality in the most brilliant ways” (266). Writing may thus be another form of the mundane practice of daily routine that allows refugees like Boochani some access to human dignity (see West, this issue).
Boochani has a powerful memory, and his recollection of characters and events enriches the book. His ability to bring the reader along and convey the suspense of the moment is exhilarating. He writes from the vantage point of a former asylum seeker, offering an unprecedented window into the world of transnational human smuggling and the challenges involved in evading immigration authorities. Millions of human beings are on the move, seeking opportunities in stable, affluent societies and protection from persecution by crisis-riddled homelands. In the context of the current trend of seeing immigrants in a negative light, Boochani’s contribution evokes powerful images and recasts our understanding of people’s motivations for immigration and their frustrations with sovereign states’ immigration policies.
No Friend but the Mountains is organized into twelve chapters. Chapters 1 through 5 detail the author’s plight as he travels from Indonesia to Christmas Island. This journey begins in dramatic fashion, on a forested path leading to the sea, and the reader is immediately thrown...