In the foreword to this harrowing narrative about asylum seekers incarcerated on Manus Island, Australian author Richard Flannagan writes: “Reading this book is difficult for any Australian. We pride ourselves on decency, kindness, generosity, and a fair go. None of these qualities are evident in Boochani’s account of hunger, squalor, beatings, suicide and murder.” Flanagan has put his finger on an ugly irony in Australia’s national self-imagining. Many Australians would be amazed that they might not be viewed as decent, kind, and generous folk with an acute sense of social justice. Aren’t they a people intuitively practising the virtues of mateship and egalitarianism? Don’t they thumb their noses at pretentious authority? Aren’t they a great sporting nation? Aren’t they universally acclaimed as the most successful multicultural country in the world? Aren’t they famous for their plain-speaking, robustly democratic life-style – they of the ‘lucky country’, the land of barbeques, beaches and long weekends? What’s not to love about them?
Well, Kurdish-Iranian writer and journalist Behrouz Boochani provides evidence that the preferred national self-imagining of most Australians is deeply delusional. It reveals a dark side to the country’s thinking about itself. Reading this book leads to the conclusion that in psycho-cultural terms Australia is a schizophrenic country. On the surface it looks so Anglo-respectable, solid, sensible, secure. But underneath there is a paranoid fearfulness of the other, the stranger, especially those desperately reaching out for help. Australian governments (and many, perhaps most, of the citizens voting for them) abruptly turn away from foreigners who are in dire need. But when the foreigners persist in coming across the sea in decrepit boats, they are handed over to mercenary contractors who are paid millions (perhaps billions) of dollars to incarcerate them amid the fetid jungles of Manus Island where they are treated like animals.
Many Australians will be upset by what they see in the mirror that Boochani is holding up to them. Through well-crafted prose interspersed with poetic interludes, we are invited by the writer to enter the experiences of the fraught people among whom he is imprisoned. Boochani has an amazing ability to recognise the dignity in even the most wretched of souls. As he plumbs the depths of their hopelessness and their humanity, his compassionate understanding of his fellow refugees-cum-prisoners is shiningly present, providing the readers with a modicum of relief in the face of the dreadful facts he is revealing to them.
Boochani’s story begins in 2013. We follow the narrator from when he and fellow refugees are packed on to trucks in Jakarta by people smugglers, men who are insolently insouciant about the safety of their clients. By night they are driven through the Indonesian jungle, reconnoitring with other trucks at a remote beach. Once they’ve been herded on to the ramshackle boat waiting for them, it creeps furtively forward under cover of darkness, eventually pushing out on to the high seas. Every imaginable horror besets them – a crucially important pump breaks down, a hole opens in the hull, sick and terrified people vomit and pee and struggle for space on the congested craft. These desperate refugees are fired by one obsessive, ultimately forlorn ambition – to make it to a land of hope, if not glory. They have been cynically misled into believing that they will find a haven in Australia.
A rendezvous at sea with the kindly crew on an Indonesian fishing boat offers them a moment of brief respite from the terrifying, heaving sea. But then they are left to drift away under a scorching sun. Their frumpy boat begins to founder. Miraculously, a cargo ship looms over the horizon. The sailors high up on the cargo ship soothe the sun-ravaged refugees by spraying them with hoses and then lowering biscuits and water. Huge waves bash against the flimsy hull of their boat. A young boy is lost overboard, leaving behind a backpack containing a sodden book of poetry the writer had lent him. The relentless waves begin to break up their boat, obliging the cargo ship’s crew to rescue them. By now they are in Australian waters. A radio alert from the British ship’s captain brings an Australian warship ploughing across the sea to apprehend them. The refugees are transferred to the warship which then transports them to Christmas Island.
Their stay in a prison-like environment of the detention centre on Christmas Island is brief. After processing, they are flown to Manus Island, a fiercely humid, mosquito-ridden, malarial hellhole of a place off the north coast of Papua New Guinea, well away from Australian territory and Australia’s jurisdictional reach. Under a dodgy deal concocted with the government of Papua New Guinea, the Australian authorities established four detention centres (effectively prisons) on Manus into which the refugees are crowded indefinitely, perhaps for the rest of their days – and for those who are either murdered or who suicide, absolutely for the end of their days (twenty so far). As far as the local Manusians are concerned, the refugees are interlopers, imposed on them by their own conniving government and the neo-colonial intentions of the Australians. While some Manusians are kind to them, others are hostile. Conditions in those centres of misery were (and remain) inhumane, degrading, horribly cruel. The Australian government’s defence of this brutality is that it dissuades more refugees from seeking asylum on Australia’s shores, stops more of them drowning at sea, while disavowing the people smugglers’ “business model”.
The writer describes the dehumanisation of the refugees by the mercenaries the Australian government has contracted to run the detention centres on its behalf – to do its dirty work. He details how refugees in effect become prisoners (even though no crimes have been committed, no charges have been laid, and no court has sentenced them). He tells of their misery and suffering. He gives an example of the physical conditions in what, in reality, is a concentration camp: “… a dark and narrow tunnel sixty metres long, three metres wide, two metres high, and damp like a wet barn. In fact, it is more suffocating than a stable for mules, filled with half-naked bodies, stinking breath, stinking sweat […] It is hard to believe anyone could live there, let alone the one-hundred-and-thirty individuals packed into the place by force.” There is black humour in his account of “Maysam The Whore,” a handsome Iranian in his twenties, who provides a wildly dramatic, quasi-erotic dance routine to entertain his fellow prisoners: “He is a man who ridicules everything, and his presence, his dancing, his singing, helps us forget the violence of the prison for a moment.” But even Maysam succumbs to the hopelessness of the prison and lapses into depression. “But in the end, at sunset or during the darkness of midnight, someone takes hold of one of those razors with the blue handles, chooses the most appropriate toilet, and over there, in the moments that follow, warm blood flows on the cement floor.”
There is a subtle subtext in this book, too, about the Australians who are directly complicit in the crimes against humanity being committed on Manus Island. As Boochani notes, they are “ … mostly overworked and have spent most of their lives working professionally in Australian prisons with different kinds of criminals […] Many of the guards are ex-servicemen who have served for years in Afghanistan and Iraq: they have been waging war on the other side of the world. They have killed humans.” The petty authority that these mercenaries exercise over the refugees on Manus tells us a lot about most Australians who, as Flannagan has pointed out, are blindly certain they are decent, kind, generous and fair, even as their governments, acting in their name, underwrite the evil of the concentration camps on Manus – and, for that matter, on Nauru, another Australian detention centre in the South Pacific. Their national self-imagining amounts to one massive collective hypocrisy.
Through his account of the refugees on Manus Island, Boochani is helping to expose the fact that few Australians realise that they inherit, and then mindlessly reproduce, a singularly “hard culture,” characterised by its narrowly defined masculinism, persistent racism, naïve secularism, and xenophobic populism. This hard culture lends itself immediately to the vile regime being imposed on Manus Island (and presumably in Nauru) on an overwhelmingly innocent people who have an absolute right to expect far more than Australia will ever be able to offer them. It is grimly ironic that the cruelty in the countries from which the refugees have fled is matched by the cruelty that Australia has unleashed on them. What makes the morality of all this far worse is the flimsy veil of respectability with which Australia coyly covers itself as it persists with its indefensible torturing of the men on Manus and the remaining souls on Nauru.
It is possible to think of No Friend but the Mountain standing in relation to contemporary Australia as Anne Frank’s diary stood in relation to Nazi Germany, or Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago stood in relation to the old Soviet Union. The book will forever be an indictment of Australia’s abject cruelty to asylum seekers who sought to come to the country for sanctuary. But it also reveals a pathological narcissism at the heart of the Australian collective conscience summed up in a very Australian aphorism: I’m alright Jack, so bugger the rest of you.
Allan Patience is an honorary principal fellow at the University of Melbourne.