Behrouz Boochani: No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison (2019)
"The sovereignty of the waves has collapsed the moral framework."
- Behrouz Boochani, No Friend but the Mountains, p.16
You know how it is when everyone's telling you that you simply must read a particular book? How a certain reluctance starts to set in? A refusal to be herded, to walk in their footsteps in order to repeat some pale simulacrum of their experience?
Unreasonable, perhaps, but that's how it is. One of my colleagues, Rand Hazou, lent me his own copy of Behrouz Boochani's prison memoir, so I thought this might be a good way to sample it before actually deciding whether or not to add it to my already overcrowded bookshelves.
Varlam Shalamov: Kolyma Tales (1995)
I have read a number of prison memoirs in my time: I date from the era when every dissident memoir from the Soviet Union was there to be appalled by: Evgenia Ginzburg (Into the Whirlwind & Within the Whirlwind), Natalia Gorbanevskaya (Red Square at Noon), Anatoly Marchenko (My Testimony), Irina Ratushinskaya (Grey is the Colour of Hope) - not to mention the collected works of Andrei Sakharov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Varlam Shalamov (if you haven't read him, you really should: Kolyma Tales is a great work).
Jacobo Timerman: Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without a Number (1982)
As well as those, there were books from Latin America (Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without a Number, by Jacobo Timerman); Africa (The Man Died: Prison Notes, by Wole Soyinka); not to mention - going back a bit - Nazi Germany (I was Hitler's Prisoner, by Stefan Lorant); and the Spanish Civil War (Dialogue with Death, by Arthur Koestler). Let's just say, in summary, that it's not an entirely unfamiliar genre to me.
Much of the interest around Boochani's book has focussed on its extraordinarily convoluted mode of composition and transmission to the outside world: it was sent in fragments through text messages, then converted into blocks of pdf text, and finally passed on to his translator, Omid Tofighian.
Omid Tofighian (2019)
Actually this is probably the least interesting aspect of the book. Certainly this method has had an influence on the extraordinarily close relationship between translator and author which characterises it, but possibly this would have grown up organically anyway.
Stephen King: The Plant (2000)
All in all, it reminds me a little of Stephen King's somewhat abortive experiment with online publication twenty years back, when he published his then-latest short story, Riding the Bullet, as the "world's first mass-market e-book, available for download at $2.50."
King complained later that everyone who wanted to talk to him about it focussed on the method of publication, while none of them seemed to feel the slightest interest in the story itself. Frustrated, he gave up on his follow-up plan to issue a serial novel, The Plant, in digital form. It remains to this day a magnificent fragment.
In other words, to paraphrase King's own motto: "Trust the tale, not the one who tells it." If you do decide to read Boochani's tale, you'll immediately notice a few things about it:
- First of all, it's very 'poetically' written. In other words, the prose passages are interspersed with more focussed passages of free verse. What precisely this echoes in the original text, it's hard to say, but it's certainly very effective in English.
- Secondly, Boochani has the soul of a novelist, as well as that of a poet. His character studies are brilliantly biting and witty.
- Thirdly (and perhaps least palatably for many readers), he is an intellectual of the deepest water: prepared to argue theoretical definitions of oppression and perception to the n-th degree. Principal among the concepts he uses is that of Kyriarchy.
Anthony Haden-Guest: The Resistance to Theory
To my deep shame, I have to confess that this term did not immediately ring a bell with me. Now, of course, I've googled it and am getting ready to sound like I knew what it meant all along. But no, don't believe me. I didn't.
Or rather, I thought I didn't ...
Countdown Supermarket (Mairangi Bay)
Since it was first built in the 1970s, we've been living next door to a supermarket which started out as a SuperValue, then became a Woolworths, and is now a Countdown. Originally it had two entrances, one at the back and one at the front, but at a certain point, a couple of decades ago now, they decided to make the back carpark a loading area.
This didn't stop us walking through there. Once or twice it was necessary to dodge the front-end loader, but I never heard of any accidents or problems with that (though cars were only allowed through when no unloading was taking place).
Last Christmas we were rolling a trolley full of goodies towards the loading area when a young uniformed fellow started shouting at us. "You can't go through there," he said. The fact that we claimed to have been doing so for years did not sway him. We were forced, instead, to take the long way round and roll the trolley back through the rest of the shopping centre.
Alas, this was an augury of things to come. We continued to walk through, but we could see the signs of construction work beginning. Eventually this culminated in a pair of gates, at either end of the loading zone, which have made it impossible for anyone without a key to get in or out.
These were not just any gates: they were topped with barbed wire, padlocked and chained, and surrounded on all sides by extra razor-wire extensions to stop anyone trying to slip in or out unobserved. If you imagine something like the prison camp in that old TV series Hogan's Heroes, that should give you the general idea.
Nor is the process of getting them open and shut a trouble-free one. We frequently see lines of trucks stalled in the alley leading up to the first gate, honking their horns and cursing the absence of anyone to let in and unload their goods.
The gates at the other end, however, are even worse. They were wrongly balanced to start with, and could not be closed without immense effort and much cursing. Eventually they just left them open most of the time, until they could be removed and an entirely new set of gates installed.
To what end, exactly? The one thing they didn't try, over all the years we roamed freely through this loading zone, was a sign to the effect that people shouldn't walk through there - "for health and safety reasons." There's a sign there to that effect now, but given the simultaneous presence of the barbed wire and padlocks, it's not really necessary any longer.
I can see that the job of manning the loading area has become at least fifty percent more onerous since the great gates were installed. They have to be opened and closed, with much ceremony, many times a day - the truck drivers clearly hate them, and so (one suspects) do the supermarket staff. Sometimes I've been inside buying groceries when the call comes over the tannoy: "So-and-so to the loading area," generally accompanied by loud honkings and shoutings from outside.
The analogy may seem a trivial one, but this is the best I can come up with as a running definition of kyriarchy: a completely unnecessary set of extra rules and regulations, reinforced by physical barriers and new holding areas, which transforms lives by adding an extra level of inconvenience and time-wasting, on order to achieve a very debatable end.
Why didn't they try asking us not to walk through? It might not have worked, but putting up a couple of signs to that effect would surely have been easier than going the full nine yards with the locks and the razor wire?
The idea that there's nothing accidental in such decisions, whether they concern the detention structures on Manus Island, the roads and barriers around West Bank settlements in the Middle East, or the management structures in large institutions, is (as I understand it) the idea behind this theoretical construct:
Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (2008)
In feminist theory, kyriarchy ... is a social system or set of connecting social systems built around domination, oppression, and submission. The word was coined by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza in 1992 to describe her theory of interconnected, interacting, and self-extending systems of domination and submission, in which a single individual might be oppressed in some relationships and privileged in others. It is an intersectional extension of the idea of patriarchy beyond gender. Kyriarchy encompasses sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, xenophobia, economic injustice, prison-industrial complex, colonialism, militarism, ethnocentrism, anthropocentrism, speciesism and other forms of dominating hierarchies in which the subordination of one person or group to another is internalized and institutionalized.Once you start looking for it, you spot it everywhere. They just announced the introduction of a new scale of parking charges at work, without any consultation with staff, just after we'd finished a long set of negotiations over pay and conditions with them through our Union delegates. Merry Christmas to you, in other words - don't think you can get us because we'll get you.
Is kyriarchy too large and all-encompassing a concept to be useful for critical analysis of these structures? Not really. The point is to try and encompass the protean slipperiness with which power structures adapt themselves to each new change to the status quo.
I wish Behrouz Boochani well, and think his book a narrative masterpiece, but I think he would be the first to say that this is the beginning, not the end, of the conversation. The mere existence of places such as Manus Island raises uncomfortable questions. If we fail to see them as the extension of the petty power structures all around us designed - with more or less success - to keep us in line, then we've missed the whole thrust of his argument.