WWII

55 Classics Review #8 – Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut


Slaughterhouse-Five is turmoil turned ’round on itself, ad infinitum. So it goes.

Before I started reading Slaughterhouse I knew that I liked Vonnegut. I listened to Welcome To The Monkey House on audio book a few years ago and I found his speculative fiction fascinating and his writing style thoroughly comforting. Vonnegut is equally enjoyable read as he was read aloud.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a book of war. It tells you from the beginning that it has always been, even years before Vonnegut knew how to write it, a story of the Dresden fire-bombing of WWII. This bombing was the single most horrifying assault of the Second World War, targetting civilian populations and killing about twice as many as the atom bomb did in Hiroshima. The entire city of Dresden was razed to the ground and even after his widely acclaimed book it is little remembered. Vonnegut was a POW in Dresden at the time and one of a very small number of survivors. Like many war veterans, Vonnegut didn’t know how to deal with what he has experienced, but as a writer he couldn’t let something so definitive to his worldview be left untouched. Thus, Slaughterhouse-Five.

The book feels like a mad rambling. It begins and ends with a lot of Vonnegut personally talkings about how and why he is writing this book so many years later, and it doesn’t always make complete sense. When he finally gets along to the story he means to tell, it is also disjointed. It makes sense that it is disjointed, because his world is ultimately disjointed.

Even though I was familiar with some of his science fiction, I was completely caught off guard to find it here. The book follows Billy Pilgrim, Dresden POW, alien zoo experiment, and man disloged from time. Feeling like a series of end-of-life flashbacks, we are actually supposed to be traveling through time over and over, re-experiencing aspects of Pilgrim’s life at all its various stages. As a man who no longer thinks about his history linearly, Pilgrim has found infinite peace in being able to detatch himself from being effected by the horrors around him.

Vonnegut’s goal is not simply to tell horror stories of war. He excercises great restraint in sharing the details of Dresden. A considerably small percentage of the text actually covers the war. Much of it is spent in subsequent life and on an alien planet. It would be easy to interpret Pilgrim’s later alien adventures and time-traveling as Vonnegut’s attempt to point out how the insanity of war drives men to a truer insanity, but I think we lose something in explaining the book under strictly realistic experiences. We are meant to believe in Pilgrim’s aliens and travels. They mean something if they are real which they do not if they are hallucinations.

You can easily see that Vonnegut associated organized religion very closely with politicking and war-making. He uses the aliens and time traveling as an opportunity to predicts a philosophical loophole. Religions of the world can be damned, but there is probably something else out there, some better way to live and view our existing that puts all of human history in a catagory of foolishness beyond comprehension. Vonnegut is sold on the idea that this ideal exists, but he doesn’t write hoping of it. Pilgrim proclaims it but humanity is incapable of joining in his new bliss.

I think that the juxtaposition of Vonnegut’s style against his attitudes adds a huge element of what draws people to his work. He writes straightforward and comical persons and scenes. When he describes a man, we invision a dopy, cartoon character that feels foolishly and warmly human. Then this character commits historically-accurate crimes against humanity. Or he stands by and becomes numb to his hurts, is mocked as a fool for being totally shaken, and lives on to inflict lesser hurts on his home in its future peace. Vonnegut warms us up and then gently affirms that existence is a train of horrors at the hands of humanity.

I think that Slaughterhouse-Five is valuable, important even. It displays just how enjoyable a book can been even in describing utter evil, which is a confusing and concerning reality. It points to every man as an open book with a broken spine. There is no good or bad man, there is only mankind, and it is gross and predicatable.

The books thesis, repeated over and over when referring flippantly to death and distruction, is, simply, “So It Goes.”

Author Quotes: W.H. Lewis and What The Germans Knew


One of the biggest gut-wrenching questions asked by the world in the aftermath of World War II was simply,

“How much did the German people know?”

Perhaps the most natural question one asks when confronted with human atrocity on such a scale is simply “How?” How can the people of German claim to have no knowledge of genocide in their backyards, committed by their relatives and neighbors?

It’s telling then, to say the least, to read this entry from the diary of Major Warren H. Lewis, brother of C.S. Lewis, and to recognize the date of the entry and the thoroughly eery foreboding it carries in hindsight. It also begs the heavy question, if an English visitor was able to get this clear a picture this early in history, how could the residents claim to not know anything after things got so much worse?

Saturday 17th November, 1934

“J’s friend and former pupil Pirie Gordon came to tea this afternoon: he is just back from Germany, and talked interestingly about his experiences there. He told us–on authority of the Times correspondent–that in a concentration camp near Munich (?) 40 persons have dies by torture since the camp opened, and 150 of ‘natural’ causes. He notices a distinct falling off in the Nazi enthusiasm, as contrasted with his previous visit in the summer, but admits that in the summer he mixed chiefly with students, and this time with the middle aged. The Term still continues, and people are constantly being arrested and vanishing. He doubts if Hitler is fully aware of the cruelties which are being practiced in his name. A Herr Himmler is head of the Ogpu or whatever it is called, and is the most sinister figure in Germany. There appear to be rumors that Hitler is mentally deranged: it is common knowledge that Goering was in a private lunatic asylum at the time of the Nazi coup–his insanity being caused by excessive drug taking.”