Slaughter-House 5 by Kurt Vonnegut
There’s not too many things one can say about Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ that have not been said. After reading Goldammer’s mystery below I felt ready for another take on Dresden and wondered how I could have missed this work that has become a true classic? Perhaps that’s the reason, its popularity that kept me away (such occurs to me frequently). Then I accept that as my lost for the novel is certainly in a profoundly remarkable, special, even scary. class of its own.
We all know a Billy Pilgrim, the typical white-bread fed American boy who wonders into a quandary of bad and dangerous world affairs, does not get so terribly wounded; uses a very simple imagination to displace world realities, survives, has a usual rather disjointed life, then dies. Some of us know the upsetting futility of war submerged beneath the bristling, deadly silliness of the later novel ‘Catch-22’ and then Tom Hanks seemingly inoculation from war in Forrest Gump. Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse certainly presages these gems in a way forever outstanding. What is it that makes this novel great?
It is readable, has a good story – stories! – and all that. But I think Vonnegut has produced a terror upon human senses. What is certainly lighthearted, easily digestible becomes actually a hit in the gut. It’s obvious we are in the apparent mind of a creative genius, able to flash his skilled, inspired moments of brilliance before us, almost at will, Picasso-like, flapping flaccid world relevances as, yes, the novel ordains and questions the meaning of life.
A bomber drops its violent load and goes backwards to the making of the bomb. The backwards beginning again and again in this work. If we were to follow human natures like that, would we see the beginning, catch it, change it, before it goes again to its predestined load?
No and that is why there is the invention of the imaginary space vehicle, the Tralfamadorians, who Billy believes in so relevantly. Because this is the place where time is meaningless. It is nonlinear. Death and life exist simultaneously. What is dead is alive, it loses its existence with death and occurs simultaneously with life. (And somehow the future is there too where you never die.) And so this is time. The violence of Dresden is still there. “It was the fastest killing of large numbers of people — one hundred and thirty-five thousand people in a matter of hours.” But Vonnegut was wrong with the numbers, and I believe correct with the violence, the horrors of World War II are still there. All of them.
Goebbels upped the 20,000-plus figure with an extra zero, looking for the rage to follow. At Vonnegut’s time, 1969, for him it was 135,000 burned, incinerated in this “most destructive aerial bombing of World War II.” But the rage had already presaged the event. First found in 1944 by the Russians in a prison camp. Then several times later, up to Jan 1945 when the Russians liberated the Auschwitz site.
Dresden followed in February.
The novel is deeply philosophical, perceptively questioning the reality of time, mental space and perhaps freedom and choice. Who was Billy but a limp reflection of the age? The nonplus suburban lifer, giving speeches full of jokes at the club and not attached to any meaning.
Large tragedies become reduced to small ones. The crazed Colonel, call me “Wild Bob”, based on the actual grandson of iconic William Bill Cody, a fellow prisoner of Vonnegut in Dresden, dies. The wearisome, dangerous simpleton Weary dies of gangrene on the feet shoveled into, standing, spooned together, POWs, in a similarly over-crowded rail box car. And there’s the other remarkable unremarkable hobo who dies in starvation on the car. The captured English officers are held as gentlemen by Germans who wanted to be that way. (Hitler could have destroyed Britain, but, alas, did not want to.)
And Dresden, poor Dresden, “Florence on the Elbe,” which is the way Vonnegut wanted to see it. A bastion of Medieval culture, artifacts, architecture. If one could interpret time so that the tragedy did hold as a major one, but not in comparison, say, to the nest of accompanying horrors, what kind of time-space formula would be required? Disjointed from time, why that of the Tralfamadorians, of course.
Slaughterhouse-5 novel is an amazing accomplishment and can be refreshingly read over and over. And I think Vonnegut is basically right about time. In fact, his ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ has a perception that would forever yield new discovery, things still not said. For example, No, time does not occur, only, we do.
“I been hungrier than this,” the hobo told Billy. “I been in worse places than this. This ain’t so bad” – said the hobo before he too died in the rail car.