Saturday, 4 August 2018

Book review: No Friend but the Mountains, Behrouz Boochani (2018)

This curious production comes complete with introductions by a number of people who evidently thought that a gloss with expert commentary on the text might make it easier to consume. I passed over these bits, including the one written by Australian author Richard Flanagan, and cut straight to the chase.

What the text reminded me of (at least that part of it that I managed to finish) were the sound trucks that roll down busy Tokyo streets at all hours of the day. With huge speakers placed on their roofs, the trucks, bedecked in flags, ride in convoy through the traffic in busy business districts blaring out patriotic music and exhortations to action in the name of a resurgent motherland as workers and children in the areas they travel through go about their daily tasks, oblivious to them except where they intrude by dint of pure volume at the periphery of their consciousnesses.

The emotion embodied in the trucks is evident. The warping and distortion of sound carried by their speakers is sort of ecstatic. The people riding in them truly believe in what they say, and that the people of Japan are chosen for great things. But the weird quality of the sound and the mismatch between the sentiments being conveyed and the lives of ordinary people going about their business on the pavements, is stark. Most people think that the men in the trucks that go around spewing out their ultra-conservative views are lunatics.

From the outset, the volume on the emotional register in Boochani’s book is turned up to the maximum available setting and it stays at that pitch throughout despite the actual dramatic tone of the event being described at any given point in the narrative. As a result, it is quite exhausting trying to keep up with what happens to the people in his story, which starts with a group of people sitting in the back of an old truck that is motoring through the jungle in Indonesia. They make it to the beach, get into the boat that is to take them to Australia, and set out on the ocean. Then the pump motor cuts out and the men have to use buckets to bail water out of the hull because there is a hole in it that lets the water in.

That’s as far as I got before putting the book down out of concern for my psychic eardrums. All that screaming, all those overwrought expressions, all that bad poetry interspersed with the high-flavoured prose. Like kitsch, it’s just too much. All emotion, all the time, forever. Reading it was sort of like walking through a room in the disco lit by a strobe. Normal movements become jerky and strange. Boochani really needed a better editor. A Kurd who says he was a journalist in Iran and who writes in Farsi (this is a translation), it’s not clear from what I read why Boochani was leaving his homeland on the journey to Australia.

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