War Will Do This to You: Slaughterhouse-Five

slaughterhouse-five-by-kurt-vonnegutDouble dose of American literature! Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five was a great book. It feels weird to say that given the book’s subject matter is the firebombing of Dresden, Germany in World War II that killed more than  135 000 people (although this number apparently has been disputed by military historians). Taking on such serious material, I was surprised by the appearance of time travel, aliens called Tralfamadorians, and the unlikely protagonist Billy Pilgrim. This is a surreal and surprising book.

It opens with a frame narrative of a veteran who did live through the Dresden bombing and has been trying to write a war book for many years. This figure resembles Vonnegut himself and interrupts the narrative at various points to make certain points (like he was at the bombing or to point out which character is him). The novel takes up Billy Pilgrim as its protagonist, an tall and thin man who was training to be an optometrist before he becomes a chaplain’s assistant in the material. He is shipped overseas in 1945 and at the Battle of the Bulge ends up behind enemy lines. There is some great comedy as he meets two scouts and a blood-thirsty but cowardly soldier named Roland Weary. Together they try to make their way back to the Allied side, but are caught and taken to a camp. Eventually, Pilgrim ends up in Dresden working forced labour before he and the other American POWs hide out in a meat freezer called Slaughterhouse Five while the city is bombed into oblivion.

Oh, and did I mention that throughout this, Pilgrim narrates his various time travels, his abduction by aliens, his life on their planet, and his life after the war? These things happen and break up the seriousness of the war sections. Or they seem too, but occasionally Vonnegut drops little bombs on his readers to remind them of the brutal violence in World War II. The extermination camp where the Americans are housed becomes a comic place as a group of well-supplied and well-organized Englishmen entertain them with a play and a feast. The Americans are unimpressed (largely because they are starving and exhausted) and the Englishmen take offense at the American’s lack of interest. When the Americans are sent along, the Englishmen try to reassure them that everything will be great and that Englishmen actually envy the Americans because they will have a sense of purpose now. Just after leaving the camp, Pilgrim spots the frozen corpse of a hobo who had died on the train ride to the camp. It is these little jolts of reality that make Slaughterhouse-Five a great read.

There is something compelling about the fact that this novel is so absurd. It is as if the wanton violence and destruction involved with the bombing cannot produce anything but a kind of absurdist comedy. When that many people are killed for no real purpose (the War was almost over and there were no military reasons for bombing Dresden), it is hard to approach such an event logically. So Vonnegut approaches it with satire and science fiction. It works quite well and I think may end up teaching this book in the future.

I would highly recommend this book to any reader (maybe not for children).

Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five, or the Children’s Crusade. New York: Delacorte Press, 1969. Print.

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