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Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds – TLS

23/12/2012

“The war tried to kill us in the spring…While we slept the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer…While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation… It tried to kill us every day.” This semi-autobiographical first novel by Kevin Powers, about a soldier during the Iraq war, opens impressively, picturing the immense force that the Americans believe themselves to be up against, a force that is insatiable, irrational and utterly indifferent to them as individuals: “The war would take whatever it could get. It didn’t care about objectives or boundaries, whether you were loved by many or not at all…the war came to me in my dreams and showed me its sole purpose: to go on, only to go on.”

With this rhetorical flourish Powers sets out his stall. He also establishes the novel’s battlefield between an impersonal war machine – connected metonymically to the enemy but largely abstracted from those on either side responsible for the war’s organization – and a lone soldier, John Bartle, who struggles with his personal “obligation to remember correctly”. Bartle’s recording duty is complicated by his need to challenge the bill of goods he’s been sold (“I’d been trained to think war was the great unifier…Bullshit. War is the great maker of solipsists”), by self-suspicion (“I felt like a self-caricature…falsely strong”), by the untrustworthiness of memory and language (“there was a sharp distinction between what was remembered, what was told, and what was true”); and by his fear that finding patterns, in war or in narrative, brings only false consolation (“It seems absurd now that we saw each death as an affirmation of our life”).

Bartle has joined the army for all the usual reasons: to get out of town, to find adventure, to test himself. His story is told retrospectively, as he looks back on a less articulate and more deceived self. The narrative is non-chronological, moving back and forth between his training in New Jersey in 2003; battle skirmishes in the Iraqi province of Nineveh in 2004; a moment when he goes AWOL the following year in Germany (in a cathedral among effigies of bloodied, martyred saints, and in a bar where the violence continues and a soldier beats a woman); and his release from the army and return home to a difficult reunion with his mother.

The final section, set in 2009, yields answers to the questions raised near the novel’s outset about Bartle’s responsibility for the death of his friend and fighting partner, Murphy. There is a further mystery about the role played by their gung-ho leader in the war, Sergeant Sterling, with whom Bartle has an ambivalent relationship: this is the man whose professional vigilance gives the young soldiers their best chance of staying alive, but he is also the one who rallies them to action and keeps them killing.

Albert Herbert, 'Jonah Arrives at Nineveh, 2004'.

Albert Herbert, ‘Jonah Arrives at Nineveh, 2004’.

Traditionally, the novel has often viewed war through the eyes of a complicit individual, a pawn in the wider game. It is from this perspective that The Yellow Birds derives much of its emotional power and testimonial authenticity – qualities that have won laurels in the form of the Guardian First Book Prize and perhaps overexcited praise from writers as diverse as Tom Wolfe, Colm Tóibín and William Dalrymple. But it is also Bartle’s tunnelled vision, his admitted solipsism, which sets the novel’s limits.

Unlike, for instance, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (1961), which reveals something of war’s extreme dehumanization through a science fiction foil – and whose catchphrase for quietism, “So it goes”, is quoted here – The Yellow Birds has no counterpoint. Death, mutilation, castration, body bombs and all the other brutalities Bartle witnesses or is party to, are contrasted with his lyrical and existential musings. But the individualism these signal seem as much a part of the problem as an answer to it. Bartle’s quest in the book, “to discover what it was I was guilty of”, and his scrupulous self-interrogation sits uneasily in a novel which so persistently evades the larger question of responsibility for the war.

A version of  this review appeared in the TLS on 18.01.2013.

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