Wednesday, September 12, 2012

1960s - Slaughterhouse Five (1969)

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut is one of those books that people have been recommending to me forever, and yet the title has always put me off actually reading it. That and the fact that I have always kind of mixed it together with Catch-22 (which I have also never read) in my mind. But in the spirit of this Century of Books challenge I thought needing a '60s book to read was  the perfect opportunity to put my misconceptions behind me and actually see what this book is all about.

In short, this book is all about the life of Billy Pilgrim- traveller in time- and sort of revolves around his experience of WWII and, in particular, the bombing of Dresden. The book proceeds in a linear way through Billy's war experiences, but these are inter-cut with his travels to a range of different moments in his life, sometimes for a brief impressionistic moment and sometimes for longer, from his time in hospital to his time as an alien abductee on the planet Trafalmadore. The time and space travel can be read as fact, or as products of the war-shattered mind of Billy, who has after all read a lot of bad science fiction. Or at least that's how I read it. The time travel and encounters with an alien culture prompt musings on the nature of time and fate, which might be read as Billy trying to make sense of his wartime experiences.

The character of Billy Pilgrim almost seems to run on rails, fated to end up where he does, accepting of all events that come his way, a sort of fool, an innocent caught up in an incomprehensible situation. This really picks up on the book's subtitle, The Children's Crusade, but it's a ludicrous sort of innocence- at the climax of the book Billy emerges into the bombed landscape of Dresden wearing a number of cast-offs from a POW camp production of Cinderella, including silver boots and a sort of toga. He doesn't seem to give any thought to it, though people around him are amused by his appearance. His reaction to the aftermath of the bombing is similarly wide-eyed- it's described as 'like the surface of the moon' and Billy Pilgrim spends one of the happiest moments of his life asleep in a wagon drawn by a donkey in the desolate ruins of the town.

The effect of all this is what makes it a powerful anti-war book. It's devoid of heroism or scenes of military prowess- Billy Pilgrim goes into the war unarmed (he is trained as a Chaplain's assistant) and is captured by a rag-tag bunch of soldiers. War in this book is ridiculous, it is horrible but not tragic, because there is romance in tragedy. Instead it is a farce, and the idea of justified war is undermined by the centre-piece of the story- the destruction of the entire city of Dresden. It's not that the Nazi's are portrayed positively, the corpse candles for instance are a sharp reminder of how bad it was, it's just that the war is not a positive thing.

It's an interesting scenario, I don't think that the Dresden bombing is something that I really knew or thought about until I read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Johnathan Safran Foer (which I loved). The descriptions in that book are more horrifying because it is not avoiding the tragic, the images of liquid fire, the idea of large-scale death came through so strongly in that book that Slaughterhouse Five seemed flat by comparison. Recently I read Above Suspicion by Helen McInnes, a spy novel written during the early years of WWII and set in the lead up to the outbreak of war. That book was heavily shadowed by the idea of appeasement, and expressed a sort of moral disgust at not acting against Germany earlier. Obviously it's written in wartime, but it's hard to read it and see how you could not go to war- after all, not only was Nazi Germany an awful regime, it was also actively invading other countries. But then you read books like Slaughterhouse Five, and remember Dresden (and Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and wonder how anyone can get through a war with their conscience intact?


  1. Anonymous19/9/12 23:46

    "wonder how anyone can get through a war with their conscience intact?" I suspect many don't, but then life is difficult, and to be good is not always to be nice and certainly not easy. Was Dresden (or Hiroshima) justified then? A different question really, but you can't help have doubts.

    The only Vonnegut I can remember reading is "The Sirens of Titan": also a somewhat surreal book, which has largely gone from memory now. I did watch some of "Slaughterhouse Five" on video once, but didn't last the distance. A cheap alternative I know, but then I only know many of the classics from their comic book versions...

    1. While I normally would say that the book is always better than the movie, I think I've changed my mind. Sometimes the movie is better, particularly when you didn't really get along with the book. Does that go for comic book versions?