Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut -Book Review -
Basic Introduction to Slaughterhouse 5
Vonnegut sets out by telling us that everything in the book did happen, more or less. Especially those parts covering the war. That's the second world war, specifically, the bombing of the German city of Dresden on the night of February 13th 1945. Vonnegut was actually there but somehow managed to survive what is believed to be one of the most vengeful acts of war ever perpetrated from the air.
The city was full of evacuees. Estimates of the dead range from 50,000 to 135,000.
You can imagine that a young, impressionable 23 year old from Indiana, already a prisoner of war, would have been traumatised to hell and back by such an event. The fact that the author was fluent in German - both his parents came originally from Germany in 1855 - only adds to the feeling that this book was part written in blood. He couldn't help but write Slaughterhouse 5.
Is this why he co-titled it The Children's Crusade : A Duty Dance with Death?
Why Slaughterhouse 5?
It's ironic that Kurt Vonnegut, a prisoner of war, came out of the firebombing of Dresden unscathed because he was based in an old city slaughterhouse, building No5, Schlachthof-funf in German, which happened to have extra strong cellar walls.
Out of death comes life.
Billy Pilgrim's Existentialist Issues
This is the story of Billy Pilgrim, war veteran, wealthy optometrist and father who just happens to have a restless, fractured mind. His consciousness floats through time: past, present and future. War is the past, his family life present, his future in the hands of aliens from the planet Tralfamadore.
Vonnegut's narrative skips between and cuts out these contrasting scenes, reflecting the random, fragmented nature of mental breakdown. You may not like the technique but isn't that just the way with the human condition? Billy Pilgrim is a victim of extreme trauma and has lost control over his faculties.
I found this fascinating. Reading the book was like experiencing three different plays. On one stage you're at home in the 1960s with the affluent eye specialist who just happens to be married to an overweight but rich woman, Valencia. Then you're on board a flying saucer, abducted by aliens who want to put you in a zoo; the next you're deep in war torn Germany, 1945, facing starvation and death.
The writing is strong enough to hold all three scenarios in place.
Video - Part of Movie
Slaughterhouse 5 Movie
What I love about this book is the fact that it doesn't offer any answer to the question of 'Why do humans make war?'
There are clues along the way. There are anecdotes and funny asides. The author's personal experience weaves in and out of the story until, gradually, it works you up into the realms of morality, metaphysics and what it is to be a frail human. As for the war, you're free to make your own mind up. Vonnegut isn't telling us that war is immoral, neither is he suggesting that war is necessary. He's simply telling a story that is part real part imaginary.
It ends with a bird giving out a Poo-tee-tweet once the massacre is over and what sort of reply can you give to a small bird that survives a firebombing? Perhaps because of the way it's written and devised it asks more questions about the human condition than many other longer, more conventional books about war.
There are no shortage of characters either. There's Weary, a fellow American prisoner of war, 'filled with a tragic wrath' who dies of gangrene in a boxcar en route to the camp. He tells everyone the cause of his death is the fault of none other than Billy Pilgrim. In that same boxcar is Paul Lazzarro, one of the meanest characters ever to grace the pages of a book. Perhaps war has made him that way, perhaps war saved him from himself?
That's the question.
Montana Wildhack In An Alien Zoo
When Billy Pilgrim is kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians he ends up in a geodesic dome, on show to the Zirconians. At first he's alone, naked, like Adam. The onlookers love to watch him pee. Then Montana the porno Queen shows up, a voluptuous dream model, and Billy's life changes forever and ever and ever.
Oh, if only Eliot Rosewater, Kilgore Trout and William Blake could see him now. Perhaps they can! Pehaps they all have knowledge of the 4th dimension?
This is a book I needed to put down occasionally. I had to take a break, step to one side, give the images time to subside. There is a lot to contend with. Vonnegut is both extremely dark and absurd. For example in chapter 5 Billy Pilgrim tells the aliens, the Tralfamadorians, that he is from a planet that has been engaged in senseless slaughter -
'And I have lit my way in a prison at night with candles from the fat of human beings who were butchered by the brothers and fathers of those schoolgirls who were boiled alive in a water tower in Dresden.'
Little wonder that Billy Pilgrim wants to escape into a fantasy world. His wartime experiences constantly bubble up and overpower the present, and it's this ongoing battle that Vonnegut handles with such skill and imagination. The aliens of Zircon 212 are totally baffled by Billy's descriptions of the human struggle on Earth, for they see life in four dimensions - you cannot create the future for it is already there, as permanent as the past, structured to happen as it does. Why exert free will when you know how the universe ends? So it goes.
Slaughterhouse 5 for me is a stunning book. It's not an easy read because it portrays quite vividly the brutality and absurdity of war. It moves quickly 'travelling in time' from one scene to another. From the invented Ilium in New York state, Billy's family home, to a corpse laden street in Germany, to an Adam and Eve image on an alien planet. You have to learn to live with switches in time, just like the protagonist Billy Pilgrim.
Yet it can leave you feeling hollow, upset and disenchanted. What's the point of violence on such a scale? Why the meaningless slaughter? In war you do what's necessary to survive. Don't you? The British know how. In war you make sure you shave each day, stand upright and never stop talking!And you must never steal teapots from anyone or you'll end up getting shot.
It will make you laugh. It will spark your emotions. You won't know what to think about Billy Pilgrim. Hate him, feel sorry for him, despise him, love him.
If the aim of a writer is to get you to read and keep on re-reading their book then Vonnegut has clearly achieved his goal. I'll be returning to this book, no doubt. When? That's the question.
In Billy Pilgrim there is both helpless victim and anti-hero 'unstuck in time.' He is subject to bouts of mental instability, he weeps quietly so no-one will notice, he takes off on flights of wondrous fancy to a place where he can at least try to reconstruct the nature of time.
Vonnegut reveals to us a character slowly coming to terms with an illness that has no cure, the cause of which is a real event, the massacre of mostly innocent people. It could be said that Billy Pilgrim the human being died at that time and a new disengaged personality took over, one who wouldn't ever be able to reconcile the future with the past, or get a grip on the here and now. An existentialist dilemma if ever there was one.
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© 2013 Andrew Spacey