Best Books of 2018 #2
No Friend But the Mountains, the electrifying “memoir of ideas” by the refugee journalist-philosopher Behrouz Boochani is my book of the year. Boochani defied every attempt of successive governments to deny refugees such as him a voice, transmitting the manuscript via text and WhatsApp messages from a smuggled-in phone to his translator and interlocutor, Omid Tofighian. Such heroic defiance alone would make it a worthy book. But this is a great book, with a voice, as The Saturday Paper review had it, that is “acerbic yet compassionate, sorrowful but never self-indulgent”.
Many good books have been written about the immigration detention regime, turned first by John Howard and then every government since into an instrument of intentional torment in the name of deterrence. Refugees, advocates, guards, teachers and others have provided a wealth of personal testimony to the system’s cruelty, as well as the humanity of its victims. Journalists have investigated its history and political progression. Boochani, writing from the inner circle of hell on Manus Island, has written an intensely personal book that blends Kurdish poetry and legend, allegory and the observation of nature (including human nature) with a theoretical framework inspired by the work of the radical feminist theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. His big idea is to apply the notion of her “Kyriarchal System” of power and control to the regime of offshore detention, exposing the internal, at times surreal, logic of both policy and practice. No Friend But the Mountains is many things. It is poetry, philosophy, prison memoir, cri de coeur. It’s not an easy book to read, because Boochani does nothing to spare our feelings or our conscience, but it may well be the most important one you’ll read for years to come.
Sisonke Msimang’s moving memoir Always Another Country, about a life in exile and the politics of South Africa, is another standout. Msimang describes herself as “part of a tribe, we who occupy the land of almost-belonging”. Witty and insightful, she also illustrates how the politics of race in South Africa was further complicated by gender and class. A coming-of-age tale that is at once heartbreaking, funny and warm.
I also recommend Michael Pembroke’s Korea: Where the American Century Began. Pembroke, a New South Wales Supreme Court judge whose father served in the Korean War, exposes in chilling detail the extent of General Douglas MacArthur and the American government’s culpability in the war, including the horrors inflicted on the Koreans of the north, and on the Allied soldiers as well. The war paved the way for America’s rise as a neo-imperial superpower. It also made inevitable the ongoing conflict and suffering on the Korean peninsula today. This is history as terrifying and gripping as the best thriller.
If you’re looking for something more cheerful, go straight to the delightful The Year of the Farmer by Rosalie Ham. Big laughs aplenty in this comedy of manners set in a small rural Australian town.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 22, 2018 as "Best Books of 2018 #2". Subscribe here.