War is atrocious. Weapons are atrocious. The barbarism that gradually sticks to the skin of the men that are involved in the war is atrocious: the individual fades away and disappears, there are only numbers left. Those numbers are the body count. These are the ones that the two protagonists, the soldiers Murphy and Bartle, write down relentlessly in the hope that someone other than them will increase them, applying the cold and cruel logic of If you die you increase the chances that I will not die.
War is terrible, just because of all that this book conveys. And this is what makes it valuable: an essential book is undoubtedly more valuable.
Kevin Powers raises the stakes, adding money to the pot. He does this through his incredibly accurate writing, sometimes raw but never detached, and painfully clear.
He does this through poetry: in this wilderness of rotting corpses, his words get straight to the heart.
Murphy is indeed a corpse himself, never being able to return home, but so is Bartle, tarnished and condemned by the merciless hand of remembrance. Because sometimes it’s hard to tell: memory is half imagination.
So the war goes on, even after it’s over. Even after all the bodies have been buried and medals have been awarded and hung on the wall.
It continues on the plane, when you squeeze your hand on the barrel of a gun which is no longer there. It carries on in your head, forever replicating the image of your best friend’s mutilated body, and gets you to admit, ‘I do not know how to live out there anymore’
With heartbreaking honesty, Yellow Birds hits the mark, outlining three characters – Bartle, Murphy and Sterling – who, all together, are the portrait of one man : Powers himself.
Translation by Silvia Accorrà (edited by Sabrina Macchi)