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Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut [book review]

An anti-war novel. Nude with Montana Wildhack. Time is an illusion. Being shot because of a teapot. So it goes.

slaughterhouse-five Kurt Vonnegut

The narrator begins the novel by announcing that everything more or less happened. He also tells that he had long wanted to write a book based on his experiences before, during and after the bombing of Dresden. However, he did not make much progress. Not even after he had returned to Dresden in 1967 with his war comrade O’Hare.

It is only after the writer invents the character Billy Pilgrim as his alter-ego that he manages to find the right form. From the second chapter onwards we read the history of this Billy Pilgrim, through short fragments with many leaps forward and backward in time.

This is a translated article from my dutch review Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse Five (Slachthuis Vijf).  Translated with Mircrosoft Word. Some changes are made by myself (probably made it worse 😉).

The live of Billy Pilgrim

Billy Pilgrim is sent to Europe in 1944 at the age of twenty-two to fight against the Germans. He ends up in the Battle of the Bulge. There he was captured and put on transport to the East together with other American prisoners of war. First, he ends up in a camp full of Englishmen. They take care of the Americans, but soon have enough of these dirty, disorderly soldiers with no morals. Billy and the other Americans are moved to Dresden by the Germans. One of Billy’s traveling companions is the first person narrator from the first chapter of the novel. “Oz,” he says when they arrive in beautiful Dresden.

Schlachthof Fünf

In Dresden, the American prisoners of war were used as forced labourers. This was followed by the bombing in the night of 13 to 14 February 1945. The entire inner city is destroyed. People burned alive or suffocated because the fire sucks all the oxygen out of the bomb shelters. In the novel the number of deaths is estimated at 130,000. Billy survived the bombing because he was imprisoned in Schlachthof Fünf (Slaughterhouse Five). In the days after the bombing, he and other prisoners of war were forced by the Germans to help finding corpses and burn them.

Ilium and Tralfamadore

After the war, Billy finds a job as an optometrist in the village of Ilium. He marries Valencia and together they have two children: Barbara and Robert. At first glance, this makes them seem like a standard family, but Billy’s life is anything but standard. For example, when he is in the hospital after a plane crash, his wife dies of carbon monoxide poisoning as a result of a car accident while she was on her way to see him. And on the eve of his daughter’s wedding, Billy is abducted by aliens. They take him to the planet Tralfamadore 446,120,000,000,000,000 miles away from Earth. Billy is exhibited naked to the inhabitants on the planet. Later, he is joined by the movie star Montana Wildhack.

Unstuck in time

For the Tralfamadorians, time is a fourth dimension. They can travel through it, just as we move through space. Because of his abduction to Tralfamadore, the normal sequence of events no longer exists for Billy either. He experiences the past, present and future criss-crossed. ‘Unstuck in time’, apart from time, is what he calls it. As a result, Billy relives the horrors of Dresden and other frightening moments of his life over and over again, interspersed with his relatively peaceful adventures on the planet Tralfamadore.

PTSS

Billy himself has no control over his perception of time:

“Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day. He has walked through a door in 1955 and come out another one in 1941. He has gone back through that door to find himself in 1963. He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all events in between.”

Billy’s state of mind could be seen as a form of post-traumatic stress syndrome. To the outside world, he comes across as a confused old man, who is no longer able to live on his own. His daughter doesn’t believe anything about his time travels and is furious when he talks about it on the radio.

The poor condition of a dead body

The ability to travel through time offers the Tralfamadorians and Billy another way of looking at death:

“When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamodorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes’.”

“So it goes,” is the line the writer and Billy utter every time someone dies in Slaughterhouse Five.

No romanticization of the war

It is clear that the bombing in Dresden is the core of Slaughterhouse Five. For Billy, the war is a traumatizing experience after which his life is never the same again. All the other suffering in the rest of his life leaves him cold compared to the memories before, during and after the bombing. The same goes for the narrator of the story. One of the narrator’s intentions is to make sure that his book does not romanticize the war. No starring role for John Wayne or Frank Sinatra should the book ever be made into a movie. There is little intelligent to say about a mass slaughter:

“Everybody is supposed to be dead, to never say anything or want anything ever again. Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds.
And, what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like “poo-tee-weet?”

Children’s Crusade

The full title already makes it clear that we are dealing with an anti-war novel: Slaughterhouse Five or the Children’s crusade, a Duty-Dance with Death. The comparison with the Children’s Crusades refers to the incredibly young age of the soldiers. Billy was 22 years old when he was sent to war, but a number of his fellow prisoners were much younger. The English were surprised that the Americans were sending children to war. The German soldiers Billy encounters are also often young (or very old). The young age of the soldiers is common theme in a lot of war novels. In Karl Marlantes novel Matterhorn about the Vietnam war, we not only read that young children have to fight, but that they after a few weeks also have to make decisions about the life and death of their comrades.

The absurdity of life

The absurdity of life in general, and during wartimes in particular, is another major theme in Slaughterhouse-Five. Edgar Derby is an American prisoner of war in his forties who volunteered for the military. Funnily enough, he taught ‘Contemporary Problems in Western Civilization’ before the war. After the bombing in Dresden, he steals a teapot. A German tribunal sentenced him to death. For the narrator in Slaughterhouse Five, this is the climax of his novel: the entire city has been burned down, more than a hundred thousand people have died, many of whom are still rotting among the rubble, and Edgar Derby is shot dead because of a teapot.

The unknown science fiction writer Kilgore Trout

Billy is a fan of the work of science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, whose work he learned about in the psychiatric ward of a hospital for war veterans. Trout is an unsung writer who, like Billy, lives in Ilium. Trout’s books help Billy reshape his life. You could think of Kilgore Trout as an alter ego of Vonnegut. Vonnegut also likes to use science fiction themes in his novels and his first novels were sold as pocket books at gas stations by a science fiction label.

Slaughterhouse Five: between fact and fiction

In Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut uses his own autobiographical facts as an autobiography for the first person and narrator in the novel. That narrator, in turn, uses those facts to shape the character of Billy Pilgrim. This interplay with fact and fiction is often seen in Vonnegut’s novels. The writing of the novel is also the subject of the story. In the first chapter, for example, the first person tells how he struggled with writing the book, and in the last chapter he himself is emphatically in the picture again. This form of metafiction can be compared to the way in which Louis Paul Boon makes the character Boontje struggle with the story, the other characters and life in De Kapellekensbaan.

Like David Mitchell

The writer Trout, the planet Tralfamadore, and the town of Ilium appear in several of Vonnegut’s books. This, too, reinforces the ingenious interplay between fact and fiction that Vonnegut plays. In our time, this can be compared to the work of David Mitchell, who also has his characters recur in several novels. The novel Thone Bone Clocks seems to be the pivot in the oeuvre, because it explains the mechanism behind it. Mitchell is also an author who likes to play with fantasy and science fiction themes and therefore follows in Vonnegut’s footsteps in that area as well.

Pascal Klaassen
oktober 2016
translation januari 2024

My version of Slaughterhouse Five:

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse five or the Children´s crusade, a Duty-Dance with Death, Dell Publishing, New York, 1991

I’m inspired by:

  • J.H. Donner, ‘Het Bombardement van Dresden’; De Tijd; 5 december 1972; pagina 5;
  • Auke Hulst, ‘Je bent wie je te zijn beweert‘; nrc.nl; 20 april 2012;
  • Wikipedia: Ilium en Kilgore Trout;

Dit vinden jullie:

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