Saturday, February 5, 2011
Book Review: "Slaughterhouse-Five," by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
The last time I read this book, I think I was about twelve years old. My Dad wanted be to read it before I was old enough to actually fight in a war. I'm very grateful that he challenged me with this book when I was so young. I was amazed at how much of it had stuck with me through the years, and how deeply it had affected my conscience, morality, and worldview. I still remember most of the plot points, which is quite a feat, considering how convoluted the timeline of this book is.
The main character, Billy Pilgrim, an American P.O.W. in World War II, who has become "unstuck in time... [with] no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren't necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next." Billy is captured by Germans during the Battle of the Bulge and transported to Dresden, Germany, just in time to witness firsthand the two-day firebombing of "the Florence of the Elbe" by Allied planes. Roughly 135,000 human beings were killed in this attack. The vast majority were civilians, taking refuge there because both sides knew that Dresden held no strategic value whatsoever. For comparison, the bombing of Hiroshima killed 71,379 human beings.
By necessity, the book is highly convoluted, and swings unexpectedly from beginning to end to middle and back again, yet it somehow maintains a feeling of cohesion despite this. Or perhaps because of it. Vonnegut gives away the ending of Billy's life (though be doesn't die until many years after the war) and many of the important plot points early in the first chapters, so no event in the book can truly be said to come as a shock. It reads like a Greek tragedy; the reader feels a dread anticipation, knowing the terrible things that are about to occur, wishing to warn the characters of their impending doom, but finds themselves totally unable to affect the outcome.
That feeling of helpless resignation, tinged with a kindhearted remembrance of better days, is essentially the message of Vonnegut's work, which is heavily influenced by the time he spent as a P.O.W. in World War II. (Vonnegut makes no secret of the resemblance between his life and the life of his main character. Fiction bleeds into biography as Vonnegut makes several minor appearances as a fellow P.O.W. to Billy Pilgrim.)
To this day, I am still deeply distrustful of men (and it is always men) who talk about the necessity of war, the importance of striking first, the need to "fight them over there" before we "fight them over here." In the end, there may be a few, a scant tiny few who actually know the cost of war and want it anyway. Let them fight. Most human beings have no desire at all to be killed or have their families killed for any reason, and are more than content to let other, wrongheaded people go about their wrongheaded lives, as long as they are left in peace.
But we don't always have that option. Terrible accidents are bound to occur even in peacetime. Friends move away, family members age, lovers die. All we can do is remain conscious of the fact that the past is always there, and in a very real sense, they are always alive, always laughing in the past, forever "trapped in the amber of this moment."