Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Thoughts on Books: Slaughterhouse Five


Kurt Vonnegut's masterpiece sat on my shelf for the better part of a decade. I picked it up several times and tried to read it, but I honestly couldn't understand what the book was. At first it felt like an autobiographical incident, dragged into several chapters, about trying to find an idea for a book. When I finally decided it was time to give Slaughterhouse Five its due attention, I couldn't put it down.

It's hard to describe the book's genre. It's like an interesting type of stream of consciousness and the entire time I found myself asking, did this happen to Vonnegut or to the book's protagonist, Billy Pilgrim? To say the book is simply fiction is not entirely true, and to say it's non-fiction isn't entirely true either.

The book is really about the bombing of Dresden during WWII. 

Vonnegut was in Dresden at the time as a POW. The bombing is one of the lesser known events of the Second Great War because it was eclipsed soon after by the atomic bombings of Japan. Still, the gritty truth is this: the Allies dropped about 4,000 tons of firebombs on Dresden, Germany toward the end of the war. The city had no military significance and was considered by many to be a center of great cultural significance, much like Florence, Italy. 

The devastation was horrific. Recently, official reports have confirmed nearly 25,000 deaths, a number made up mostly of civilian lives. Well over 100,000 people lost their homes and became refugees; the city was leveled. People suffocated while taking shelter underground. 

Vonnegut underlines the destruction with a question that prompts deep reflection on violence.

Nations give so much attention to control nuclear weaponry, but do we really need atomic power to destroy the world? Or, in lieu of atomic bombs, would they just find other ways to level cities and kill thousands of people all at once?

The book is very strongly anti-war, but who isn't anti-war? I've met people who are in favor of some of the effects of war, like the nullification of an international threat or an increased wartime economy, but I've never actually known anyone who has been in favor of actual war.

Vonnegut also turns America on its own head. Slaughterhouse Five was published in '69, when very little had been leaked to the American public about Dresden. The bombing of Dresden was controversial, to say it very, very mildly. It stands out against the U.S. as an immoral flaw in command. Perhaps it was a lapse of judgement. But it opened a door for Americans to scrutinize their country with a new magnifying glass. After they swept away all the propaganda posters, they found some ugly things under the rug. People woke up and realized that patriotism sometimes shares a bed with self-criticism.

One of these themes is the obsession Americans have with wealth. Vonnegut points out that most Americans are poor, but they aren't allowed to accept their situation. Millions of people have lived and died poor and happy. But there is an obsession in the U.S. about trying to become rich. In reality, it's ok to not have the coolest car on the street or the biggest house on the block. Wealth is really all relative anyway. At one point in the novel, Billy Pilgrim finds a very large diamond while traipsing around as a soldier, but what use does a wartime soldier have for a diamond that is valued so highly?

In Vonnegut's words:

"America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves"..."Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: 'if you're so smart, why ain't you rich?' There will also be an American flag no larger than a child's hand -- glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register."

Having said all this, if someone were to open the book thinking he or she would be reading about firebombs in Dresden or social reform, the text might be a bit surprising. Instead, Vonnegut takes readers into the mind of Billy Pilgrim, who lived through the bombing, and from such traumatic experiences in the war, lost even his grip on time and place. 

Some people say the book has a lot of humor in it, but not the kind that makes you laugh. 

Perhaps Vonnegut describes his book best from a quote within its very pages, "There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time."