‘…if there is any true thing in this world it is that war is only like itself.’ – Kevin Powers in his foreword.
War novels abound yet one rarely feels that they are of war. Generated, sustained, and hollowed by the incommensurable physical and mental arithmetic of metal and flesh attempting to occupy the same space, The Yellow Birds resonates in the space it digs out for itself. It is split between John Bartle and his friend Murph’s service in Al Tafar in Nineveh Province of Iraq in 2005, the months preceding that deployment, and Bartle’s post-war experiences in Germany and Virginia. The brilliant opening paragraph sets the brutal scene in beautiful language.
The war tried to kill us in the spring as grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed. We patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns, moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers.
We soon learn that Murph died in Al Tafar and that Bartle’s promise to the boy’s mother to bring him home safely hangs over the returned soldier. What actually happened to Murph becomes more and more of a question as the novel develops and the responsibility which Bartle tried to flee by joining the Army catches up with him and emerges as a central concern of the novel as he struggles to stay afloat.
We’d had small lives, populated by a longing for something more substantial than dirt roads and small dreams. So we’d come here, where life needed no elaboration and others would tell us who to be. When we finished our work we went to sleep, calm and free of regret.
Responsibility is a perennial counterpart of the narrative construction by which we seek meaning in our past and present. The narrative creation of self, be it healthy or otherwise, strains under the weight of the experience of Bartle and Murph in Iraq. Suddenly the responsibility they sought to avoid is tested time and again in combat and in making sense of their actions and potential deaths.
War is the great maker of solipsists: how are you going to save my life today? Dying would be one way. If you die, it becomes more likely that I will not. You’re nothing, that’s the secret: a uniform in a sea of numbers, a number in a sea of dust. And we somehow thought those numbers were a sign of our own insignificance. We thought that if we remained ordinary, we would not die.
It is testament to the poetry of Powers’ writing that I found myself wanting to read large parts of it out loud. Yet, a novel is not sustained by lyric beauty alone. Powers’ lyricism is balanced by intense moments of ravaged thought which spill from Bartle as he despairs of any construction which might be put upon and thus make sense of his experiences either for himself or for others. I cannot help but wonder if it is Bartle or Powers we are hearing from in these moments. I am not sure it matters. I have not quoted the brilliant central section in which Bartle wonders what he might tell people about the war and his role in it if he were to just let go because one needs it in its entirety for the full effect. It is merciless and powers the book forward at a moment when one might have feared stagnation. Perhaps, as the most disordered passage of the novel, it achieves, on Powers’ terms, the greatest authenticity. Or perhaps not.
I realized, as I stood there in the church, that there was a sharp distinction between what was remembered, what was told, and what was true. And I didn’t think I’d ever figure out which was which.
That Powers questions the possibility and value of a narrative account of war, of anything, implicates his work as well: as I am sure it is meant to. To make sense of something is to take responsibility for it, at least for that interpretation; and to take responsibility is likewise to make some sense of it. That The Yellow Birds is far from linear is part of this point of view, for memory and interpretation are lateral and tangential operations of mind. What is it, then, that narrative can do? Perhaps the message of The Yellow Birds is that narratives, stories, aid us in only in everyday life and at the expense of an appreciation of the true chaos both of war and of all patterns of signification.
Everything I could recall about the war flashed kaleidoscopically, and I closed my eyes and I felt the weight of time wash over my body, I could not pattern it. None of it made sense. Nothing followed from anything else and I was required to answer for a story that did not exist.
Geoff Dyer chose this line of Joseph Brodsky’s for an epigraph to his superb The Missing of the Somme, ‘Remember: the past won’t fit into memory without something left over; it must have a future’. The future is barely alluded to once Bartle leaves Iraq and even during his tour the preoccupation is with the next mission, the probability of death, and fear for Murph’s mental state. Memory and the will to action which disintegrates after the war can only be restored once a future is in sight. It would not do to call The Yellow Birds optimistic and yet it is part of its power that Powers’ novel is not wholly pessimistic either. The novel hovers in the space between beauty and savagery, order and chaos, cohesion and disintegration. It is, I think, a great novel and, like all great novels, it will reward many readings.
It is not enough to say what happened. Everything happened. Everything fell.
The Yellow Birds is out now from Sceptre.
My thanks to Sceptre for this review copy.