Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
This was our book group’s choice for discussion in November. Whilst it’s fair to say that whilst nobody loved it, and some didn’t get on with it at all, it did provoke some good discussion. I quite enjoyed it, and would certainly read more by Vonnegut. My only previous experience with him was having read Breakfast of Champions as an older teen – and having to make sure my parents didn’t see the diagrams, (if you’ve read it, you’ll know what I mean!).
S-5 is commonly seen as Vonnegut’s most influential novel, as it builds in autobiographical elements of Vonnegut’s own experience of the firebombing of Dresden as a PoW, escaping death by hiding in the cellar of ‘Slaughterhouse-5’. Other themes are time travel, alien abduction and living an otherwise normal life! Vonnegut sets it all out on the book’s title page after the title and sub-title The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death:
A fourth-generation German-American now living in easy circumstances on Cape Cod (and smoking too much), who, as an American infantry scout hors de combat, as a prisoner of war,
witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany, “the Florence of the Elbe,” a long time ago, and survived to tell the tale.
This is a novel somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore,
where the flying saucers come from.
Before we get to the story of the man in question, the introductory chapter introduces the narrator – clearly a metafictional version of Vonnegut himself, explaining his writing of the book:
Over the years, people I’ve met have often asked me what I’m working on, and I’ve usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.
I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows and inquired, ‘Is it an anti-war book?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I guess.’
‘You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?’
‘No. What do you sau, Harrison Starr?’
‘I say, “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?”
What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that too.
And, even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.
Then the narrator tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, who as a young soldier and prisoner of war in Dresden, returns to a normal and rather dull life in America. He becomes an optometrist, marries, and lives into his old age and senility. However Billy is convinced that he’s become a time traveller, slipping up and down his timeline as a result of being abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore where he was kept in a zoo, and gained their ability to see in 4D – so he could be in all times at once.
This means that the novel goes back and forth with Billy. But is he travelling in time? Or is it just memories coming to the fore of a brain with dementia, or schizophrenia? We discussed these elements at length in our book group – it was obvious that Billy thought he was time-slipping, that he really was abducted by aliens – some were happy to accept that. Others including me, took a rational view.
Given that the novel was published in 1969, and it being most of the group’s first experience of him, we wondered how much the time-travel and alien themes were linked to any trippiness of the time…
Something the narrator does throughout the novel, which we all thought worked really well, was that every time someone dies (which is a lot), the paragraph ends with the phrase ‘So it goes’. This becomes a real mantra and emphasises the inevitability of death – one way or another.
One fact that surprised us was that more people died in the bombing of Dresden than were killed in Hiroshima. For us subsequent generations who didn’t live through WWII, the nuclear carnage is seen as the greater tragedy. The bombing destroyed over 90% of the city of Dresden.
As if Vonnegut’s anti-war messages about the damage that can be wreaked by conventional weapons weren’t enough, he makes his selection of the novel’s subtitle perfectly clear too. Billy the teenaged PoW is introduced to some English officers in the prison camp:
And he said, ‘You know, we’ve had to imagine the war here, and we have imagined that it was being fought by aging men like ourselves. We had forgotten that wars were fought by babies. When I saw those freshly shaved faces, it was a shock. ‘ “My God, my God-” I said to myself, “It’s the Children’s Crusade.” ‘
Despite the novel being written in short sections, jumping back and forth through time, snapping from one theme to another, sometimes serious, sometimes funny, sometimes even beautiful, Vonnegut’s writing is always interesting: ‘Four inches of snow blanketed the ground. The Americans had no choice but to leave trails in the snow as unambiguous as diagrams in a book on ballroom dancing – step, slide, rest – step slide rest.’
This was a surprisingly moving book to read, and a good book group choice. (8.5/10)
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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Slaughterhouse 5, or The Children’s Crusade – A Duty-dance with Death, Vintage paperback, 192 pages.