Friday, 16 July 1999

Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse 5 (1969)

Edition: Jonathan Cape, 1970
Review number: 291

Kurt Vonnegut's most famous novel is one of several American novels dealing in a more or less experimental way with the Second World War which came out in the sixties and early seventies. (Joseph Heller's Catch 22 and Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow are other notable examples.) The impetus behind this was presumably - consciously or unconsciously - the Korean and Vietnam Wars; the three novels mentioned are all anti-war, all have an anti-heroic element, all detail horrific actions against the innocent carried out by soldiers scarcely less innocent. It may be that it was only the climate brought about by the news coverage of Vietnam - which also contained these elements - that they felt it was possible to express what they thought of war. (The three books also share an autobiographical atmosphere, in among the exaggeration and tragic comedy, though this may be to do with the prose style. I don't know enough about the authors' own lives to say how much might have been based on their own war experiences.) Even so, both Heller and Pynchon used a stream of consciousness influenced style, and Vonnegut placed his stories in a series of clichés from pulp science fiction; none of them are straightforward narratives.

After an introductory section, apparently about how the novel came to be written, the reader is plunged a deeper level into the narrative. The lengthy subtitle of the novel takes images from both of these levels (the Children's Crusade, aliens from Trafalmadore) to make the book seem almost inexplicable - the opposite of the normal function of a subtitle. The main narrative is the story of Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist from New England. But it does not tell us his life story, or even concentrate on the war or the bombing of Dresden.

The non-linear temporal structure is simplified through the use of a science fiction cliché: Pilgrim has come loose from normal time. One minute he is experiencing becoming a prisoner of war in Germany in 1945, then he is at his daughter's wedding in the mid-sixties. The identification between Vietnam and the unheroic side of World War II is increased by Pilgrim's son's involvement in the later war.

A second science fiction cliché, the abduction of Pilgrim by the Tralfamadorans, is used to allow Vonnegut to comment on the absurdity of human culture; combined with the time travel, this is not confined to the period chronologically after the abduction.

The centre of Slaughterhouse 5, though, is the horrific effects of the bombing of Dresden by the Allies. Pilgrim was a POW confined in a former slaughterhouse in the city, hence the novel's title. Because the POWs happened to be underground at the time of the raid, they were among the few survivors. The biggest raid of the war, the bombing of Dresden and the firestorm that followed caused destruction and loss of life on a scale at least comparable to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since it was entirely conventional bombs which were dropped, the survivors were spared the horrors of radiation poisoning, but it still amounts to one of the most serious military crimes of history: Dresden was not a target of any importance in the German war effort. Vonnegut's novel has come out of his reaction to this event, and it is a memorial which conveys at least some sense of the horror of what happened. That is why it is an important novel.

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