June 22, 2004

Slaughterhouse-five

Just finished reading Slaughterhouse-five by Kurt Vonnegut. It's an anti-war novel, the best that I've read. What makes it so effective is that the author is writing about his own experiences with the Bombing of Dresden in World War II.

Dresden was a German city renowned for it's architecture. Vonnegut was an American soldier fighting in World War II and was taken as a prisoner of war to Dresden. There he suffered for a few months, and then Dresden was fire-bombed while all the POW's were in a underground location. The bombing of Dresden is the single largest loss of human lives. 135,000 people died there, than at Hiroshima & Nagasaki combined. The entire city was in ruins. And Vonnegut took twenty-three years to write this novel. Twenty-three. In every page of the novel, you can see that the pain and suffering was still fresh in his mind for twenty-three years. I can't imagine what it must be like to emerge from a shelter and find an entire city devastated.

The novel is a strange and fractured tale. Vonnegut writes most of it in third person, while some parts are in first person. It's a mix of fact and fiction. The main character is Billy Pilgrim, a fictional character, who is taken as prisoner along with the author. Due to the stress, he becomes deranged. He thinks that he is "unstuck" in time, that he can time-travel through his entire life at will. And the novel is written in this way, you see the entire life of Billy Pilgrim at once. He also imagines that he was abducted by aliens called Tralfamadorians, who have the ability to see in four-dimensions. He needs to invent all this stuff just to deal with his own memories, while Vonnegut needs to write it down for his own sake.

The writing style is strange, but it works in this case. Humour is used in many places, but the book remains hard-hitting overall. I'll note one peculiar thing. Everytime someone dies, Vonnegut writes "So it goes." It drives home the point that war is futile. This is what he has written at the ending of the book:

"Robert Kennedy, whose summer home is eight miles
away from the home I live in all year round, was shot
two nights ago. He died last night. So it goes. Martin
Luther King was shot a month ago. He died, too. So it goes.

And everyday my government gives me a count of
corpses created by the military service in Vietnam. So
it goes.

My father died many years ago now--of natural
causes. So it goes. He was a sweet man. He was a gun
nut, too. He left me his guns. They rust.
They rust."

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