Friday, 31 October 2014

Slaughterhouse Five - Kurt Vonnegut Jr


Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr is a work of genius. It's a work of art that has the power to disturb. It's as simple as that.
Not everyone would agree with this, of course, and there are some who would even have a problem with the book, not least Kurt Vonnegut Jr himself although the problem he had with it was unlike anyone else’s. Slaughterhouse Five, you see, is about the destruction of the German city of Dresden during World War Two and from it Vonnegut made a substantial amount of money and became an internationally known writer of repute. To Vonnegut this meant that for the thousands upon thousands of people killed in the Dresden blitz, he was the only one in the world who had actually gained anything from it. There are some, of course, who would argue that Dresden's destruction hastened the end of the war; meaning the whole world gained from it but... but... but what can you say to that? There are no words. And this, precisely, is what Slaughterhouse Five communicates: There are no words.

Vonnegut was a serving soldier during World War Two and along with British, Russian, and fellow American soldiers was held captive in Dresden by the Germans. Dresden at that time was of little military significance and had even become a destination for refugees seeking a kind of sanctuary. For three days in February of 1945 British and American planes conducted an all-out attack on the city, dropping tons of bombs and incendiary devices upon it with the planned intention of razing it to the ground and inflicting mass civilian death. The incendiary devices whipped up massive fire storms that swept through the city, sucking the air away and reducing anything that would burn to ash or charcoal. Dresden was turned into a hellish inferno.
Vonnegut, along with his fellow American prisoners and their German guards were sheltered in an old abattoir called Schlachthof-funf - in English, Slaughterhouse five - which by some miracle was one of the very few places in Dresden that withstood the fires. When the bombing ceased they left the shelter only to find that Dresden - famously known as being a city of refined culture - was now, in the words of Vonnegut "like the moon". Everything was dead. What was once men, women, children and babies was now charcoaled stumps. Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of charcoaled stumps.

This was no longer war. This was beyond any such description. There was no valour here, no bravery, no heroism, no morality. This was the greatest massacre in European history. This was beyond a war crime, beyond madness, beyond imagination. Beyond words.

Vonnegut tells us in Slaughterhouse Five that he'd been wanting and trying to write about his experience in Dresden for years but had always been stuck for words; finally, only succeeding and brilliantly so when he became unstuck.
He relays his story through a fictional character by the name of Billy Pilgrim who, finding life meaningless even before Dresden has become unstuck in time and now ricochets between periods, episodes and events like a proverbial pinball. Everything is connected yet simultaneously disconnected. There is no sense and even less meaning. One moment he's on honeymoon with his wife, the next he's a little boy being thrown into the deep end of a swimming pool by his father. One moment he's visiting his decrepit mother in an old peoples home, the next he's at his wedding anniversary party with a fictional writer of science fiction books called Kilgore Trout. One moment he's in Dresden, the next he's in a glass cage on a planet called Tralfamadore being observed by aliens like a specimen in a zoo.
Every event is equally credible yet at the same time equally incredible. If such an event as the burning of Dresden has happened in his life then why not such an event as being in a zoo on another planet? Birth, time, place and death are simply moments like beads on a string, with no real beginning and no end. He's forever a little boy being thrown into a swimming pool and he's forever on honeymoon with his wife. He's forever in a glass cage on another planet and he's forever present whilst Dresden burns.

Slaughterhouse Five isn't a difficult book to read at all but there's so much going on in it that the only way to do it justice is for anyone to read it themselves and then make of it what they will. At one point in the book, Billy Pilgrim has committed himself to a veterans psychiatric hospital because he feels he's going crazy. In the bed next to him is another former soldier who tells Billy that everything there was to know about life was in The Brothers Karamazov by Feodor Dostoevsky, adding "But that isn't enough anymore". When Billy is asked about the war a thought occurs to him that he thinks would make a good epitaph: 'Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt'. Vonnegut himself then interjects into the story and says "and for me, too", causing the narrative to be further fragmented. He does it again when Billy is entering a latrine where his fellow American prisoners are being sick and excreting profusely. "That was I." Vonnegut writes. "That was me. That was the author of this book."
Every time death is mentioned, Vonnegut writes 'So it goes', creating a catchphrase that crops up throughout the whole book. This, along with 'Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt' has been turned into popular choices for tattoos, and when something like that occurs - for my money - it's always a sign of cultural significance. How many other books are there that have inspired tattoos?

Though written in 1968, Slaughterhouse Five has dated only slightly and remains an essential book to read at least once. The film of the book, directed by George Roy Hill  in 1971 following his success with Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid is equally worth watching. Vonnegut's message (however it might be construed) is an important one that's very much worth considering. And whilst the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are still remembered it's important to also never forget Dresden and if Slaughterhouse Five in any way helps in that, then all power to it.

John Serpico

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