Saturday, September 22, 2007

book of books - Slaughterhouse 5

Whenever a famous author dies that you had never read one of the first impulses after reading and hearing the tributes is to go and discover what it was all about. That feeling swept over me when Kurt Vonnegut sadly died earlier this year and after failing to get Slaughterhouse 5 out of the library for reasons of popularity in the end I bought it and sat down to read arguably his most famous novel.

The blurb on the dust jacket actually gets in the way because comparing it to Catch 22 and talking about it almost being indefinable make it difficult to enjoy with an open mind. You really do need that open mind because this is a story that is all over the place as a result of the use of time and is also all over the place in its connection with reality.

You have to try to understand that the central character Billy Pilgrim - an odd man on an odd sort of Pilgrim's Progress through trial and tribulations until the bullet comes in 1974 - is as much a metaphor for the destruction of war as he is a literal character stuck in the middle of one.

Plot summary
The first couple of chapters are an introduction to the novel and Vonnegut's mission to write an epic using his experiences as a prisoner of war in Dresden during the time the allies turned it into a firestorm. He admits that not only has the idea been in his head for a long time but it is also one he has struggled to get going with because of his problems remembering the war. Then Billy Pilgrim is introduced. This time travelling optometrist is next to Vonnegut in the prison camp and in the aftermath of Dresden when the prisoners are made to work digging out the corpses. But Pilgrim believes in aliens and has been abducted and been put in a zoo on their planet and even had a second wife and child up in space and as a result is able to travel in time and so skips through his life going back and forth remembering things and people knowing what will happen next. His wife dies, his friends die and in the end he even knows when he himself will die. But he carries on with his life and time travelling and ends up remaining the figure of the clown that he had been given in the war. The name of the novel comes from the name of the place the prisoners are housed in Dresden and they are told that if they ever get lost they are to ask to be taken back to slaughterhouse 5, part of the city abattoir that lies dormant as the fresh meat never comes.

Is it well written?
It is an easy book to read in terms of style and length but it is a difficult novel to get to grips with. Is Billy Pilgrim mad about the time travel, which could result from the trauma of war? If he is right then is it trying to suggest we are a primitive world for doing acts like Dresden to each other? Or is it just a crazy mixed up way of using arresting characters to get you to think about the futility of war? I suspect it is a mixture of all three and probably some other things as well. The point that Vonnegut is trying to make is laid out in the introduction when he meets the wife of an old solider friend who accuses him of planning to write a book that will glorify war, He does the opposite and with his expression 'so it goes' after each death you start to get the impression that no one really cares about body counts and innocent victims in war. You also get the clear message that for those who end up fighting in them and surviving then it destroys them slowly. The madness of destruction on a scale that Bomber Harris and his friends visited on Dresden would alter your perception of reality. This book makes you wonder about war and its victims and you are left wondering just why anyone would want to fight people like Billy Pilgrim. As a call for peace it is subtle but powerful nonetheless.

Should it be read?
There are various reasons why this should be read including the style, which is confident and different from most traditional narratives. Also there is the subject, which is ultimately about a man trying to recover his memory about the past and piece together what happened and facing up to the horror. But it also deserves to be read because the person who wrote it was part of a generation that saw action, saw death on a scale we today cannot imagine and then tried to translate that into a novel that would not only be something generations that lived through peace could relate to but something that would plant a seed in the mind that when fully germinated - and it probably takes months if not years after reading this book - then you start to appreciate the disorientating and mind bending impact that war can have and why it is not something we should ever wish for.

Time travel, aliens and the horrors of war might all seem like illusions and madness but of all three the horrors of Dresden were only too real

Version read - Vintage paperback


Anonymous said...

I feel for Billy, the poor bastard. Being uncontrolably unstuck in time. That's gotta really suck. I sometimes move through time, into the future. It's random and undefinable, I can't choose where or when. I don't like it, but I deal with it as best I can. Time is not liear and that fact is hard to come to terms with. This story makes me feel a little better, in that my personal movements through time are not as screwed up as Billy's. Some people think that traveling through time might be cool. I for one don't think so. I would like to believe in Free Will over Destiny. Free Will is moot, once you realize that the past, present and future coexist. The life we live and each choice we make is the life we've always lived and the choices we'll make are the choices we've always made and will make again. I'm glad, or at least Hope, that most people will dissagree. The Truth Is out there... But it's better if we don't find it.

simon quicke said...

I have to agree with the last bit about the truth being out there and sometimes better not found.
The problem about going into the future is that sadly whhen it does arrive it was never as brilliant or enjoyable as I thought it would be.
Thanks for commenting much appreciated.