Last week I read Kurt Vonnegut's Slaugherhouse Five. I didn't know what to expect, but it certainly wasn't this. I thought it would be a more traditional story about war. Anyway, I thought it was absolutely great, the way he writes about the war without actually writing about it. I like the way he uses SciFi to talk about the war, because usually this genre isn't seen as literature, I usually don't expect SciFi novels to have literary value anyway, I guess I'm a bit of a literary snob.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children's Crusade. A duty-dance with death. 1969. London: Vintage, 1991.
After the war, the auther thought it would be easy to write a book about what happened. But it took him a lot longer to actually write it than he expected.
"When I got home from the Second World War twenty-three years ago, I thought it would be easy for me to write about the destruction of Dresden, since all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen. And I thought, too, that it wold be a masterpiece or at least make me a lot of money, since the subject whas so big" (2)
But then he finds there is nothing sensible to say about war/massacre:
"It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything issupposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds.
And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like 'Poo-tee-weet?'" (14).
The book doesn't have a linear structure, doesn't seem to be coherent at first sight. It's like the Tralfamadorian fourth dimension: you get to see fragments, you get to see everything at the same time, and together they form an image of what happened.
"[E]ach clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message--describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn't any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce and image of life that is beautiful and surprisingand deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time" (64).
"So they were trying to re-invent themselves and their universe. Science fiction was a big help" (73). Not only does SciFi help Billy to understand his universe, it also helps the narrator to explain his world to the reader, to explain Dresden/war.
Another reason why it seems foolish to write a structured story about war, is that there will always be war. There is no way to prevent it. As it says on page 84, "the idea of preventing war on Earth is stupid," because every "moment is structured" so that it will always be. But there is still a lesson we could learn from the Tralfamadorians. Even if we can't end or prevent war from happening, we can "[i]gnore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones" (85).
Another way in which SciFi helps, is that the events on Tralfamadore are used to explain or to link back to Billy's experiences in the war. At one time the Germans are compared to the Tralfamadorians (just a shame I didn't write down the page number), and he tells Montana Wildhack about Dresden when he's on Tralfamadore, telling her "[i]t was like the moon" (130).
Pages 135-7 contain some 'prefaces,' all of the authors trying to say something sensible about Dresden. Again, they're all just fragments.
Everything in the world seems to be related. Not even just on our planet. Events on Tralfamadore, in Dresden, on the airplane, they're all linked. People are connected, without knowing it:
"They were, in fact, distant cousins, something they never found out" (115).
And then of course Billy's friend Rosewater unsuccesfully tries to write Trout a letter but he can't find him, and then Billy meets him in his home town.
The title of the book is explained by this passage:
"The parade pranced, staggered and reeled to the gate of the Dresden slaughterhouse, and then it went inside. The slaughterhouse wasn't a busy place any more. Almost all the hooved animals in Germany had been killed and eaten and excreted by human beings, mostly soldiers. So it goes.
The Americans were taken tot he fifth building inside the gate. It was a one-story cement-block cube with sliding doors in front and back. It had been built as a shelter for pigs about to be butchered. Now it was going to serve as a home away from home for one hundred American prisoners of war. There were bunks in there, and two botbellied stoves and a water tap. Behind it was a latrine, which was one-rail fence with buckets under it.
There was a big number over the door of the building. The number was five. Before the Americans could go inside, their only English-speaking guard told them to memorize their simple address, in case they got lost in the big city. Their address was this: 'Schlachthof-funf.' Schlachthof meant slaughterhouse. Funf was good old five" (110-1).
Main character is Billy Pilgrim.
"As his mother said, 'The Pilgrims are coming up in the world'" (86).
The way the novel was written creates distance, e.g. this instance of self-reflexivity:
"That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book" (91). Which is an odd statement anyway, because we're not sure which author. The author of Slaughterhouse Five or the narrator?
And then there's this strange passage:
"Campbell's audience was sleepy. It had worked hard at the syrup factory, and then it had marched a long way home in the cold. It was skinny and hollow-eyed. Its skins were beginning to blossom with small sores. So were its mouths and throats and intestines. The malt syrup it spooned at the factory contained only a few of the vitamins and minerals every Earthling needs" (119). The use of it might be grammatically correct, but it creates distance, especially because it's followed by a statement from the perspective of an extraterrestrial, about what "every Earling needs."