J.M. Coetzee is Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Adelaide. He is the author of seventeen works of fiction, as well as numerous works of criticism and translation. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003. (September 2019)
No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison
by Behrouz Boochani, translated from the Farsi by Omid Tofighian, and with a foreword by Richard Flanagan
Let us suppose that I am the heir of an enormous estate. Stories about my generosity abound. And let us suppose that you are a young man, ambitious but in trouble with the authorities in your native land. You make a momentous decision: you will set out on a voyage across the ocean that will bring you to my doorstep, where you will say, I am here—feed me, give me a home, let me make a new life! Unbeknown to you, however, I have grown tired of strangers arriving on my doorstep saying I am here, take me in—so tired, so exasperated that I say to myself: Enough! No longer will I allow my generosity to be exploited! Therefore, instead of welcoming you and taking you in, I consign you to a desert island and broadcast a message to the world: Behold the fate of those who presume upon my generosity by arriving on my doorstep unannounced! This is, more or less, what happened to Behrouz Boochani.
I am writing from San Juan, from the one and only hotel here. I visited Mother this afternoon—a half-hour drive along a tortuous road. Her condition is as bad as I had feared, and worse. She cannot walk without her stick, and even then she is very slow. She has not been able to climb the stairs since returning from the hospital. She sleeps on the sofa in the living room. She tried to have her bed shifted downstairs, but the men said it had been built in situ, could not be moved without being taken to pieces first. (Didn’t Penelope have a bed like that—Homer’s Penelope?)
The nineteenth century was the heyday of the Great Writer. In our times the concept of greatness has fallen under suspicion, especially when attached to whiteness and maleness, and Great Writers courses have largely been retired from the college curriculum. But to call Patrick White a Great Writer—specifically a Great Writer in the Romantic mold—seems right, if only because he had the typically great-writerly sense of being marked out from birth for an uncommon destiny and granted a talent—not necessarily a welcome one—that it is death to hide, that talent consisting in the power to see, intermittently, flashes of the truth behind appearances.