Thursday, August 15, 2013

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut (17 down, 83 to go)

or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death

I've visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.

This is the first time I've read Slaughterhouse-Five or Kurt Vonnegut. The novel is difficult to categorize. It may be science-fiction, or you might call it magical realism. It also has portions of historical fiction. It is decidedly satirical. It is set...well it is similarly difficult to describe the setting as it involves time travel and inter-galactic travel. A large portion of the story is set in World War II, Germany, Dresden to be precise. It is semi-autobiographical as Vonnegut was a P.O.W. and present during the bombing of Dresden. 

My rating: 3 1/2 of 5 stars

I have mixed emotions. This was certainly easy to read and Vonnegut has an aloof sense of humor that I find amusing. Mostly, I think Vonnegut has A.D.D., just as the main figure Billy Pilgrim.

To be more precise, and to quote: 
Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

To describe what that means will be difficult in the few lines I feel inclined to allow. Billy, could, and did, travel in time seemingly randomly, from any one point in his life to another. A trait he learned, or perhaps perfected with the help of the Tralfamadorians, the alien race that kidnapped him and kept him in a zoo on their planet for some years. The Tralfamadorians concept of time was not linear. They saw all of time on a large continuum, and all of it was happening simultaneously and perpetually. 

I told you it would be difficult to describe. And I shan’t try beyond that.

Billy Pilgrim was, among other things, a chaplain’s assistant, i.e. non-combat soldier captured by the Germans near the end of WWII, and taken to a prison camp in Dresden Germany. He eventually witnesses the infamous allied bombing of Dresden.

The book is semi-autobiographical, emphasis on semi, as Vonnegut was a POW in Dresden, and witness to the firebombing of Dresden. He injects himself, in small roles into the fictional account told from Billy’s perspective. As far as I know, Vonnegut was never kidnapped by an alien race, but as my daughter likes to say...who can know these things.

In the first chapter, which is really a preface and not part of the story, Vonnegut attempts to describe the circumstances and reasons for writing Slaughterhouse-Five. When asked if it was to be an anti-war book, Vonnegut replied: "Yes, I guess". The person asking the question then stated that when he hears someone is writing an anti-war book, he asks them, "Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?"

I’ll have to remember that. And I give Vonnegut credit for including it.

I’m not sure Slaughterhouse-Five is truly anti-war anyway, which is really a redundant term. Is anyone pro-war? Vonnegut certainly hoped to show the horrors of war, and I think that is a worthwhile ambition from a writer and eye-witness.

There are other philosophical questions raised in the book, most notably the debate of free will vs fate. The Tralfamadorians are of course fatalists. They know all history, past, present, and future and are powerless to change it. They even know that a Tralfamadorian experiment will destroy the universe one day. It cannot be helped, so they don’t pay attention to it in the non-linear continuum they view, and choose instead to simply focus on more pleasant things.

The novel is satire of course, so I am not quite clear if Vonnegut is fatalist or free-will. 

I don’t even get the sense, as I’ve said already, that he is truly anti-war, at least no more than any rational human being must be. I sense a sincere and deep sadness by Vonnegut, one that I think he bears admirably through his writing. I think he was convinced of the senselessness of the allied fire-bombing of Dresden. You can certainly make a case that it was neither militarily necessary, nor proportionate. However, Vonnegut clearly bought into a popular belief of the time, one that I was taught in High School, that the allied powers, killed more civilians (from 135,000 up to half a million) in the bombing of Dresden than we did in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. I don’t claim to be the end of all knowledge on the subject, but the consensus today, even by a city of Dresden study estimate, it was no more than 25,000. So it goes.

Sorry, inside joke there. Whenever Vonnegut spoke of death, mortality, or dying, he concluded with the phrase, so it goes. 25,000 is terrible in its own right.

At any rate, as one who has not witnessed the horrors of war, not very close at least, and thank you Lord, I’d say the novel was both enlightening and interesting. I’d also say that even though I am probably not aligned with Vonnegut politically, I rather like him. He seems genuine if nothing else, and that seems to be a dying quality these days. So it goes.


I've visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will. ~ Unnamed Tralfamadorian

Quotation by Kurt Vonnegut, not in the Novel, but about the bombing of Dresden.  

The Dresden atrocity, tremendously expensive and meticulously planned, was so meaningless, finally, that only one person on the entire planet got any benefit from it. I am that person. I wrote this book, which earned a lot of money for me and made my reputation, such as it is. One way or another, I got two or three dollars for every person killed. Some business I'm in.

Film Rendition: 1972 version starring Michael Sacks as Billy, and a bunch of other actors you haven't heard of. It was a decent portrayal of a story that would be hard to tell in film. Read the book, skip the movie.


1 comment:

  1. Definitely mixed feelings for me, too. Vonnegut was effective, but the topic was a difficult one. Of course, I never learned about Dresden - schools don't really teach WWII anymore, let alone Dresden. Afterward, I did a little research, and it is shocking. So, in that case, you are right: I imagine he is very sad. If I had his experiences, I suppose I'd write all kinds of stories, too.


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