Kevin Powers: "When I was serving, I gave up any notion of a just cause."

The winner of the Guardian First Book Award interviewed.

Last night, the American writer and former soldier Kevin Powers won the Guardian First Book Award for his novel "The Yellow Birds", set during the Iraq war. I spoke to Powers about his service in Iraq and the tradition of the war novel.

Like the narrator of your novel The Yellow Birds, John Bartle, you went straight into the army from high school, rather than going to university. Was that always the plan? Or did you fall into military service by accident, like Bartle does?

I suppose I share that trajectory with him – it wasn’t something I planned to do from a young age. At the time I made the decision to sign up, it did seem like a practical choice, for a number of reasons. There’s an unofficial tradition of serving in the military in my family – my father, my uncle and my grandfather had all served. I did want to go to college, but for financial and other reasons it didn’t seem like I had all that many options. So knowing that the army would pay for that after my service … and I did believe that it was an honourable choice to make. I suppose in a way I was attracted by the sense of adventure.

Did it also have something to do with where you’re from, with Virginia and a particular tradition of military service there?

Not only Virginia, but throughout the south and the rural and semi-rural areas of America. It’s often the case that a significant portion of soldiers would come from those areas. It’s probably more common in places like where I grew up to go into the military than it may be in, let’s say, New York or Boston.

This is not just a novel about war is it? In a way, it’s also a book about Virginia isn’t it?

That’s true. Home, and the idea of home, figured prominently in the writing of it. So it seemed appropriate for the characters to have that shared geographical history.

What was it like going to college as a veteran, being alongside students who hadn’t had that experience?

Well, of course I was several years older than most of the other students. I probably didn’t take things for granted that I might have had I gone right after high school. I was aware of my own sense of being separate.

There’s a connection between what you’ve just said and one of the themes of the novel - that war is a kind of laboratory of solipsism in which soldiers care principally about saving their own skins.

That’s true. Bartle has to comes terms with his own survival and his responsibility for the people around him – particularly Murph. And when he comes home, the direct challenge he has to face is coming to terms with his individual experience. He has to fight that battle on his own too.

Bartle says early in the novel that “war is the great maker of solipsists” yet the book is also about relationships – between Bartle and Murph, and between him and Sterling. One of the organising tensions in the novel seems to be between solipsism and comradeship.

Yes, I think so. Obviously, the survival instinct, the instinct for self-preservation, is probably the strongest instinct we have in common. But it does also bump up against loyalty and the sense of responsibility for one another.

Did your commitment to the ideas of comradeship and loyalty survive your own experiences in Iraq?

You know, it certainly affected the way I determined what it is I am loyal to. When I was serving, I gave up any notion of a just cause. I focused on the fact that I’d made a commitment to the people around me that we’d watch out for each other. So for me that was what drove me to do the job, to stay alert. It was all rooted in the fact that I felt I had an obligation to the people in my unit.

It’s interesting that you mention the idea of just cause. Was it the very idea of war being pursued in a just cause that you gave up or the idea that that war in particular was being fought in pursuit of a just cause?

To some degree, it’s both. I am able to imagine a situation in which, if war was the last course of action available [it is just], but in the case I happened to serve in I find it harder to make the same claims.

This is a novel, not a political tract, but do you see it as having a political aspect? Or were your motivations in the first place literary?

I did try to avoid having any kind of explicit agenda. I simply want to leave a record of my own attempts to reckon with these question through the imagination. But it’s hard to talk about war honestly and not … My personal opinion is that if you’re talking about war honestly, it will naturally tend towards being anti-war. I can’t envision an honest war novel that left war in a positive light.

The Yellow of Birds has attracted comparisons with great war novels of the past, such as Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead or Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Were such novels on your mind when you were writing this? Is that a tradition you felt yourself writing your way into?

No. Sitting in the small apartment in which I wrote most of the book, I was only hopeful that one person might read it and feel some kind of connection. But obviously I’m flattered and grateful that people seem to have had a powerful reaction to it.

Are there war novels that you particularly admire?

There certainly are. There’s a spectacular Vietnam novel called Meditations in Green by Stephen Wright. Being someone who both reads and writes poetry, I think of Yusef Komunyakaa, an American poet who has written a great deal about his experiences of the Vietnam war. Those poems are singularly important to me.

There’s a remarkable density of description in the novel, and I guess that’s the poet in you. Do you see yourself as a poet first and novelist second, or the other way round?

I guess I find the boundaries between poetry and prose to be somewhat permeable. When I have an idea and sit down to write something, I trust my instincts that I’m taking the right form. Poetry and prose are of equal importance to me as a reader and there doesn’t seem to be much difference in my own writing.

Were you writing in Iraq or did you start writing when you got back from your tour of duty there?

I didn’t have much spare mental energy to write [over there]. I did jot some things down in a notebook, but nothing that was directed with any kind of order.

Have many of those you fought alongside read the book?

No. But I’ve talked to some of them about it and they say they’re looking forward to reading it.

Do you think there’s a kind of standard time-lag before a war gains its own literature? After all, it took a while for a Vietnam literature to emerge. Is it still quite early as far as the literature of the Iraq war is concerned?

It does seem to be the case. But Iraq books are beginning to emerge – Ben Fountain’s novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk for instance.

Kevin Powers, winner of the Guardian First Book Award (Photograph: Kelly Powers)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism