Friday 1 July 2016

The Yellow Birds

I had read interesting things about 'The Yellow Birds' by Kevin Powers so picked it out immediately when I spotted it in a charity shop. I think that not just anyone could write a story like this. The book is a novel but it draws on his experience during and after the Iraq war. The book manages to be not just about Power's experience but also about the very nature of war and how human beings come to participate in it. 

Bartle and his mate Murph are serving in the city of Al Tafar. It is not clear what exactly they are doing there, mainly shooting at anything that moves. The writing lurches from poetic to visceral between sentences; the struggle between life and death is happening in this alien place so far removed from their normal lives that they might as well be on another planet. It is about how soldiers dissociate themselves from what they do. It is about how what they do undermines their very humanity.

"We hardly noticed a change when September came. But I know now that everything that will ever matter in my life began then. Perhaps the light came a little more slowly to the city of Al Tafar, falling the way it did beyond thin shapes of rooflines and angled promenades in the dark. It fell over buildings in the city, white and tan, made of clay bricks roofed with corrugated metal or concrete. The sky was vast and catacombs with clouds. A cool wind blew down from the distant hillsides we'd been patrolling all year. It passes over the minarets that rose above the citadel, flowed down through the alleys with their flapping green awnings, out over the bare fields that ringed the city, and finally broke up against the scattered dwellings from which our rifles bristled. Our platoon moved around our rooftop position, grey streaks against the predawn light. It was still late summer then, a Sunday, I think. We waited." (p.4-5)

He does not try to shield anyone from the realities of what happened, of what they did. Death manages to be simultaneously matter of fact and surreal.

"Malik's (their interpreter) body, crumpled and broken at the foot of the building didn't shock me. Murph passed me a smoke and we lay down beneath the wall again. But I could not stop thinking about a woman Malik's conversation had reminded me of, who'd served us tea in small, finely blemished cups. The memory seemed impossibly distant, buried in the dust, waiting for some brush to uncover it. I remembered how she'd blushed and smiled, despite her age, a paunch, a few teeth gone brown and her skin appearing like the cracked dry clay of summer."

and sometimes he had 'normal' reactions to situations, and this just serves to highlight how wrong everything is:

"A man ran behind a low wall in a courtyard and looked around, astonished to be alive, his weapon cradled in his arms. My first instinct was to yell out to him, 'You made it, buddy, keep going,' but I remembered how odd it would be to say a thing like that. It was not long before the others saw him too.
He looked left, then right, and the dust popped around him, and I wanted to tell everyone to stop shooting at him, to ask, 'What kind of men are we?' An odd sensation came over me, as if I had been saved, for he was not a man, but a boy, and that he may have been frightened, but I didn't mind that so much, because I was frightened too, and I realised with a great shock that I was shooting at him and that I wouldn't stop until I was sure he was dead, and I felt better knowing we were killing him together and that it was just as well not to be sure you are the one who did it."  (p.20-21)

and the brief moments of calm serve to highlight the chaos of the conflict:

"The ash from the burning clay bricks and the fat of lean men and women covered everything. The pale minarets dominated the smoke, and the sky was still pale like snow. The city seemed to reach upwards out of the settling dust. Our part was over, for a while at least. It was September and though there were few trees from which leaves could fall, some did. They shook off the scarred and slender branches, buffeted by the wind and light descending from the hills to the north. I tried to count the leaves as they fell, removed from their moorings by the impact of mortars and bombs. They shook. A thin sheaf of dust floated off each one." (p.24)

Bartle mentions repeatedly that Murph is not going to survive. It reminded me somewhat of Chronicle of a Death Foretold and the sense of inevitability, that the characters are unable to prevent the events unfolding, but here Bartle is the one who bears the sense of responsibility, having promised Murph's mother, somewhat offhandedly, that he would take care of him. 
I am just stringing quotes together here because every sentence in this book is part of the impact, there is no padding or waffle; the descriptions all create atmosphere, the conversations all build character and relationships. The simple unfolding of the story is a microcosm of war, this one and any other. He is not setting out to make some kind of 'war is bad and pointless' political statement, he does not try to tell you what to think or how to react, it is just laid out for you to see for yourself.

"I thought of my grandfather's war. How they had destination and purpose. How the next day we'd march out under the sun hanging low over the plains in the east. We'd go back into a city that had fought this battle yearly; a slow, bloody parade in fall to mark the change of the season. We'd drive them out. We always had. We'd kill them. They'd shoot us and blow off our limbs and run into the hills and wadis, back into the alleys and dusty villages. Then they'd come back, and we'd start over by waving to them as they leaned against lampposts and unfurled green awnings while drinking tea in front of their shops. While we patrolled the streets, we'd throw candy to their children with whom we'd fight in the fall a few more years from now." (p.91)

The way the story lurches back and forth between Iraq and his home in America focusses your attention on how dislocated life is for Bartle, the unreality of the war seems to have served to make ordinary life feel unreal. Here Bartle is home, driving with his mother after she picks him up from the airport. This little paragraph describes how altered his view of the world is:

"I pictured myself there. Not as I could be in a few months swimming along the banks beneath the low-slung trunks and branches of walnut and black alder trees, but as I had been. It seemed as if I watched myself patrol through the fields along the river in the yellow light, like I had transposed the happenings of that world onto the contours of this one. I looked for where I might find cover in the field. I slight depression between a narrow dirt track and the water's edge became a rut where a truck must have spun its wheels for a good long while after a rain and I saw that it would grant good cover and concealment from two directions until a base of fire could be laid down which would allow us to fall back." (p109-110)

Back in Iraq, I liked this quote; the idea of bodies growing from seeds like flowers creates a weird cognitive dissonance, because it is quite a lovely idea, and yet horrific too:

" 'Body bomb,' he said. All stopped. It was impossible to know who the man was or what brought him to that place, and it was hard to fathom because a moment if never long enough to account for tragedy when you are in it. Grief is a practical mechanism, and we only grieved those we knew. All others who died in Al Tafar were part of the landscape, as if something had sown seeds in that city that made bodies rise from the earth, in the dirt or up through the pavement like flowers after a frost, dried and withering under a cold, bright sun." (p.124)

Last one, I promise. Here a young medic is killed in an attack on the base camp. The care they take over her contrasts so sharply with their general disregard for the dead, and even more so with the way they subsequently deal with Murph when they find his body. Also the lovely image of the sun and the fires:

"A small number of boys out on a head count stopped and turned towards us. A pale review as her body ascended the gently sloping hill, fringed by the bleached and spotted patterns of their uniforms. We conducted her pall in earnest up the remainder of the hill. At the top, we lowered her to the ground and set her under a tree on the tied together boards, her body now translucent and blue-tinted. One of the soldiers alerted the medics and we watched them as they came to her. Her friends grabbed her and enveloped her in hugs and kisses. She rolled absently in their loving arms and they cried out beneath the setting sun. I held my hands to the back of my skull. As I walked away, the muezzin call began. The sun set like a clot of blood on the horizon. A small fire had spread from the crumbling chapel, igniting a copse of tamarisk trees. And all the little embers burned like lamp to light my way." (p.172-73)

Such an intense little book, not for the faint hearted as it is quite graphic in places, unstinting in its honesty and don't expect a happy ending, or a resolution of any kind in fact. Definitely written by a writer who happened to be a soldier, not a soldier who decided to write. Beautifully written, a book with hardly a word out of place. 

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure I could read this but it sounds excellent. His writing reminds me of Hemingway, the way he moves seamlessly from details to conclusions.


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