Book Review 8: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr

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Earlier today I had to present Slaughterhouse-Five in my literature course at the university. This was my last presentation at the university and that was just the perfect topic to end my Bachelor degree. Here is what happened, more or less.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a book that is next to impossible to explain, let alone review it in a good way. I have had this love-hate relationship with the novel for quite some time now. I first read it 6 years ago in Bulgarian and I just hated it – the text was confusing, I didn’t quite understand it because of its non-linear narrative structure and the scenes that were constantly jumping back and forth in time. The concept of time-travelling was still new to me and I wasn’t able to appreciate it at that time. The second time I read it was during my first year at the university and this time I read in English. I fell in love with the writing style of Kurt Vonnegut and the way he explores a very traumatizing moment in human history – the bombing of Dresden during World War II. He does not offer us a sentimental record of the bombings; he rather uses satire and this makes the book quite absurd at certain moments.

The novel is one of the most widely read antiwar books of the late twentieth century. It was written during the height of the Vietnam War but, as I said, it depicts the bombing of Dresden during WW2. It’s important to understand that those two historical contexts – the one in which the book was written and the one the book is about – actually serve a more general purpose. I believe Vonnegut created a novel that demonstrates how war trauma affects the individual psyche.

shf7So, how Vonnegut came up with the idea of writing a novel about the Dresden bombings and how the war in general affects people? Well in part, the idea came from Vonnegut’s own experience in the war, as he acknowledges in the book. It’s very interesting that the first and the last chapters of Slaughterhouse-Five are written in first person from the perspective of Kurt Vonnegut. In the very beginning of the novel and at the very end, he calls attention to the fact that we are reading a novel. That’s an unusual and bold choice because generally as readers we want to forget that we’re reading a story. But Vonnegut wants to unmoored us from our expectations of fiction, just as Billy Pilgrim, the novel’s protagonist, is unmoored from time. Billy Pilgrim has trouble returning to civilian life after he fought in WW2 and after being taken as POW. He spends some time in a mental institution and he, even, is certain that he has been abducted by aliens, or the so-called Tralfamadorians.

The novel presents the bombing of Dresden towards the end of the Second World War. Between February 13th and 15th of 1945, British and American bombers dropped nearly 4,000 tons of bombs on Dresden. This created a firestorm that destroyed an enormous part of the city and cost tens of thousands of lives. And then Dresden was subject to more air raids of this sort in March and April. By all accounts the suffering on the ground was tremendous. But writers, artists, and historians have found it difficult to adequately convey the horrors that took place. Vonnegut approaches the need to testify to these events in Slaughterhouse-Five by using a fictional narrative that seeks to both understand and evade the past. Although his narrator was in Dresden during the bombing and firestorm, he learns what took place by eavesdropping on whispering guards. And that’s a way of diminishing the immediacy of violence to rumor. This conversation of whispers is remembered many years after the event. And as readers, we have plenty of reasons to question it.

Slaughterhouse-Five also uses figures of speech as a means of evasion. Consider the following quote:

“The sun was an angry little pinhead. Dresden was like the moon now nothing but minerals.”

Just as you can’t look directly at the sun, Billy Pilgrim can’t look directly at the destruction of Dresden. He has to tell us what it’s like because what he has seen is unspeakable. And this sort of evasion is very common in eyewitness reports of violence – eyewitnesses often use stereotypical phrases and the unreal effect that they produce is a very real depiction of how the human mind reacts to extreme suffering. Generally speaking, it is precisely because it struggles to look directly at the firebombing of Dresden, Slaughterhouse-Five provides ways of thinking about how we live, love, fight, and heal.

Kurt-Vonnegut-1Vonnegut published Slaughterhouse-Five in 1969 before the term “post-traumatic stress disorder” had entered the language. But Billy Pilgrim clearly exhibits symptoms of this condition. First of all, his experiences during the war were definitely traumatic: he gets lost behind enemy lines during the Battle of the Bulge, he is taken prisoner by the Germans, he sees a fellow soldier die from gangrene while walking to a POW camp, he is cramped for days into a train with other POWs, he survives the bombing of Dresden and observes the aftermath of the firestorm. So no wonder Pilgrim experiences flashbacks to the war as if these incidents were happening in the present. It’s not surprising that he suffers from hallucinations either. But what is their connection with the Tralfamadorians? I think that the fantasies involving the Tralfamadorian aliens help Pilgrim work out the shame and the horror of his war experience.

“Billy says that he first came unstuck in time in 1944, long before his trip to Tralfamadore. The Tralfamadorians didn’t have anything to do with his coming unstuck. They were simply able to give him insights into what was really going on.”

We can clearly draw a parallel between the Germans and the Tralfamadorians – the Germans make Pilgrim strip when he arrives at their camp so do the Tralfamadorians. The Germans refuse to answer why they beat one prisoner and not another, the Tralfamadorians refuse to answer why they have kidnapped Pilgrim. The Germans confine Pilgrim to a slaughterhouse, the Tralfamadorians confine him to a zoo. So obviously there are parallels between Pilgrim’s past and his fantasy life. But in his fantasy life, Pilgrim can rewrite these painful events. For example, Pilgrim felt emasculated when he was a POW – he was stripped, forced to don a woman’s coat, and ridiculed. But in Pilgrim’s fantasy of alien captivity, he discovers that he can enjoy his body for the first time. And he claims that the Tralfamadorians consider him a splendid specimen and he is desired by a 20-year old porn star. Maybe this rewriting of the history can be regarded as a symptom of madness, but I would argue that it could be seen as a necessary step in the journey toward recovery.

I believe that Vonnegut injects this science-fiction element, including the Tralfamadorians, in order to indicate how greatly the war has disrupted Billy’s existence. It seems that Billy may be hallucinating about his experiences with the Tralfamadorians as a way to escape a world destroyed by war – a world that he cannot understand. Billy, then, is a traumatized man who cannot come to terms with the destructiveness of war without invoking a far-fetched and impossible theory to which he can shape his world.

a760db8aaa9713fe20b5ef4ebc8a7116Speaking of far-fetched theories, one of the deeper and more philosophical aspects of Pilgrim’s fantasy is the Tralfamadorian concept of time and space. The Tralfamadorians view past, present, and future events occurring all at once. These moments exist simultaneously and can be viewed much as humans might see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. Because they believe that all moments of time have already happened, they possess an attitude of acceptance about their fates, figuring that they are powerless to change them. And since an individual can’t change past, present, or future events, the Tralfamadorian vision of time and place denies the possibility of free will. Only on Earth, according to the Tralfamadorians, is there a talk of free will, since humans, they claim, mistakenly think of time as a linear progression.

I believe that the concept of free will is related to the concept of moral responsibility. In the broadest terms, if one does not have free will, one cannot be responsible for one’s behavior. No matter how heinous the crime that you might commit, you can be morally absolved because you had no choice. In Slaughterhouse-Five, Pilgrim makes some problematic life decisions – his choice of a marriage partner. Yet his life choices are not particularly immoral. He served as a chaplain’s assistant in the war – a role in which he is powerless to harm the enemy or help his friends. He works as an optometrist – a job in which he helps other people see better. So why would Billy Pilgrim want to be absolved of moral responsibility? It’s obviously because Billy feels guilt – guilt for surviving Dresden bombings, guilt for being on the same side as the bombers, guilt for becoming well-to-do after the end of the war. In adopting a worldview that denies free will, Billy cannot blame himself for surviving, or for being complicit in mass murder, or for benefiting financially at the war’s end.

b05b4c8ea943de43cf990f8aa75a6f49The relationship between free will and moral responsibility is also reflected in the structure of Vonnegut’s novel. He framed his novel with two chapters that at least seem to be narrated in his own voice. In between Vonnegut presents all of the events that happen in Pilgrim’s life in the order that he experiences them. This makes the narrative jump back and forth in time and space. And that means that in certain ways, Slaughterhouse-Five is a type of Tralfamadorian fiction. Here is how the Tralfamadorian fiction is described:

“There are no telegrams on Tralfamadore. But you’re right: each 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 an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and 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.”

Slaughterhouse-Five is obviously like Tralfamadorian literature, because 1) it contains a series of brief, urgent messages, 2) its scenes are presented out of order (creating the effect that they take place all at once, 3) Vonnegut has obviously chosen each scene carefully. Obviously, Vonnegut thinks that he lacks the Tralfamadorian ability to pick and choose his moments and, thus, considers his book a failure of sorts because he has come up with nothing more intelligent or deep to say about a massacre.

However, I believe that, on the contrary, Slaughterhouse-Five is a deeply human book that does contain a beginning, middle, and an end, and it does depict causes and effects, and it does create suspense, just not in the usual way. Billy Pilgrim longs to believe that he can access past moments through time travel. And although that might seem misguided, it is actually a deeply human response to loss.

All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true.


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