Monday, 12 January 2009

Review of 'Slaughterhouse 5' by Kurt Vonnegut

LISTEN: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

This book centres around the firebombing of Dresden in WWII as witnessed by the author, a US POW at the time who survived by being locked in the Slaughterhouse 5 of the title. The attack on Dresden killed 135'000 people, almost all of which were innocent civilians; by contrast the attack on Hiroshima killed 71'000. However, Vonnegut takes a different path than just explaining what he witnessed. The really innovative thing about this novel is that woven into the facts is a science fiction story told from the perspective of the lead character Billy Pilgrim. Billy does not experience time in a linear fashion. His life jumps forward and back, from future to the past. The cynic would say that Vonnegut did this to pad out the story (he almost admits as much in the intro, although this is most probably his modest attempt at admitting he couldn't remember too many details from Dresden) but it makes for an excellent way to fit the war experiences into the context of the mans life and the juxtapositions of various events in the life of Billy Pilgrim are very funny. We also learn why Vonnegut got into science fiction; 'Billy had seen the biggest massacre in European history, which was the fire bombing of Dresden... they we trying to reinvent themselves and their universe. Science fiction was a big help. ...everything there was to know about life was in the Brother Karamazov, by Dostoevsky. But that isn't enough any more.'

It also enables Vonnegut to bring in some of his worldviews. Billy Pilgrim is abducted by aliens who take him to live in a zoo on their home planet where he has to have sex with a fellow abductee, a famous movie star. The aliens experience time all at once with no past or future and their perspective helps Billy overcome his own being unstuck in time. 'when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it's very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed always will exist' ... 'the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that same person is just fine in plenty of other moments.' We also get 'it is a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor' .. 'their [the American poor] most destructive untruth is that it is easy for an American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times.' Vonnegut was a good friend of socialist historian Howard Zinn.

His second main philosophy is that there is no free will. People aren't evil or bad, just tied to events. This makes for a very even handed, non judgmental anti war story; he isn't blaming anyone he just reports the absurd surreal situations he finds himself in (using soap made from human fat [see Fight Club] and emerging from his bombing refuge to find the streets still hot and what seem like little logs lying around that turn out to be the people caught in the firestorm)
. This book is bitter, moving, warm, easy to read and very, very funny. Kurt Vonnegut died very recently and it then became apparent how influential he had been upon many (notably filmaker Michael Moore). So it goes.

'God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom always to tell the difference.'


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