Like some of these other works, there are fantastical and absurd elements at play – such as the befuddled protagonist Billy Pilgrim’s abduction to the planet Trafalmadore where he is put on show in a zoo for its green inhabitants, as well as Billy’s time-shifting. Billy has become ‘unstuck in time’ and travels to various, random scenes of his life, including his death; he has no control over which scene he will experience or re-live next. (Billy’s time-shifting reminds me of Audrey Niffenegger’s best-seller (and very good) The Time Traveller’s Wife; I wonder whether she was inspired in her hero Henry’s own time-shifting by Vonnegut?). There is an achingly poignant scene that evocatively relays the moral vacuum of war in which Billy watches a war movie backwards whilst waiting to be abducted by the Trafalmadorians – destruction is repaired by time flowing the wrong way, bullets are ripped out of fallen airmen, whilst fallen bombs are repatriated to their wings and later dismembered into their component metal parts which are shipped back to the mines from which they came and hidden “cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.” Billy extrapolates the movie further in his own mind: all these war-men were once babies, even Hitler. Alas, time soon pivots and now flows forward, and fatalism once more knocks on Billy’s door.
It is a highly auto-biographical novel as Vonnegut himself, like Billy Pilgrim, was captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge and was locked in an under-ground meat-packing cellar known as ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ in Dresden during the infamous Allied bombing. The sense of horror is dealt with obliquely; not much time is spent on the bombing itself. All-the-same, we get a work narrated by a man who must surely be in the grip of post-traumatic stress. He apologises in the first ‘introductory’ chapter for the story to come:
“It is so short and jumbled and jangled, Sam, because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.”
Part of this jumbled autobiographical self re-surfaces when Billy finds himself in a POW camp. He finds a latrine crammed with Americans suffering from food poisoning after a bizarre ‘welcome’ dinner put on by British soldiers who have stockpiled tons of foodstuffs over several years as a result of Red Cross overestimate of prisoner numbers. As Billy looks at one poor soul who feels like he has defecated out his entire innards, including his brains, the narrator identifies himself as the suffering man: “That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book.” The narrator pops up again as the POWs enter Dresden and admire its beauty. These ‘interruptions’ are odd and, for me, superfluous.
Violence and death are ever-present. Even God is at it as the narrator notes in the opening chapter: “I looked through the Gideon Bible in my motel room for tales of great destruction.” Billy himself thinks of the crucifix of his childhood: “Billy’s Christ died horribly. He was pitiful.” There is no salvation, only a desperate sense of the recurring inevitability and awfulness of war, highlighted by the accent of the ubiquitous “So it goes” which litters the narrative after each mention of death, (appearing 116 times). Fatalism is Billy’s curse and, surprisingly, his crutch too. He takes comfort in the Trafalmadorian viewpoint:
“When a Trafalmadorian 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 someone is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Trafalmadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes’.”
The Trafalmadorian concept of someone always existing somewhere in time, and thus never dying, is perhaps a natural response of someone who sees death everywhere – and, it seems, everywhen – and needs to believe that death is not the ultimate victor, that life continues on.
But amongst all the death are events so absurd and comical that chuckles and laughs are regular. We have Billy in the POW camp badly needing new boots, and he tries on a pair of silver boots that were worn in a POW rendition of Cinderella and, magically, they fit him perfectly. Billy becomes Cinderella. We also have the embarrassed Trafalmadorians closing their hands over their eyes when they admit to Billy that they are responsible for destroying the Universe. And we have Billy inveigling his way into a radio broadcast of a discussion of literary critics on whether the novel is dead, (‘So it goes’!), where he begins to talk of his experiences with the Trafalmadorians and the true nature of time. Billy’s experience of time-shifting is a circular existence, shared in part with the Trafalmadorians who can “look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains … They can see how permanent all the moments are…”.
But many of the comic moments are also tragic. We have Billy’s marital bed that is hooked up to a vibrator named ‘Magic Fingers’; poor Billy cries atop his bed unable to sleep, whereupon he turns on the Magic Fingers and is “jiggled as he wept”. It is heartbreaking and comic, almost as if Vonnegut can compress time in parts of his narrative as a Trafalmadorian would – combining all emotions into one elongated moment, experienced as a whole. As a POW, Billy recounts the story of the hobo who keeps saying: “You think this is bad? This ain’t bad.” Of course these are also, as it turns out, his final words as well. Even some of the joyous moments in Billy’s life remind him of the war – there are orange and black stripes on the tent at his daughter’s wedding reception which are the same as the stripes painted on the POW trains. Elsewhere, a four-man singing group give him palpitations at his anniversary party, reminding him of the guards that may have sung during the Dresden bombing. Finally, there is the heart-breaking sight of Billy spooning the illicit honey-like malt syrup for himself in Dresden after which: “A moment went by, and then every cell in his body shook him with ravenous gratitude and applause.” Billy then spoons some for his fellow prisoner Derby who promptly bursts into tears.
Billy is put on display in a zoo by the Trafalmadorians, with furniture stolen from a Sears Roebuck warehouse. He is watched by thousands of aliens who celebrate his every move, but struggle to understand the human concept of time. Here Billy learns how the Universe ends – the Trafalmadorians blow it up by accident whilst experimenting with fuels for their space craft. After explaining that they can’t do anything to stop this event happening, Billy concludes that “I suppose that the idea of preventing war on Earth is stupid too.” The best thing that humans can do, explains one of the aliens, is to “Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones.”
There has been criticism of Slaughterhouse-Five for its use of figures in David Irving’s 1963 historical book The Destruction of Dresden, which estimates the bombings caused 135,000 deaths. This is juxtaposed with the deaths resulting from the Hiroshima atomic bomb of 71,379, serving to highlight the extent of the destruction in Dresden. However, modern-day historians estimate a death toll between 24,000-40,000, and the city council of Dresden investigation in 2006 estimated a toll between 18,000-25,000. It’s a shame that the figures available to Vonnegut when he wrote the book in 1969 were misleading, but whether the number is 20,000 or 130,000, the horror of this event lies in the fact that Dresden was arguably a civilian city, with no real military defences or presence. I’m no military historian, and others can argue about the merits of the bombing and whether it helped to shorten the war in Europe. Slaughterhouse-Five is not undermined in my view, for it uses the horror of Dresden as a proxy for the horror of war more generally, something that most of us can agree upon.
There is, however, a deep discomfort in the inherent fatalism of the story – that war is inevitable. It is a discomfort borne of the belief that we can and should decide humanity’s fate in a better, more peaceful and productive manner, that we can affect our fate. Our distress is made all the worse when we watch the nightly news, just as Billy does in Times Square – where ribbons of light describe “power and sports and anger and death” – for it seems, all too often, the madness of violence and death continue their arm-in-arm march unabated.
So it goes perhaps, but surely we can do better?
Slaughterhouse-Five is a great read, though it is a love-it-or-hate-it thing. It is a tempting and natural tendency to compare a book with its peers, in this case other great anti-war novels. For me, this means comparing it to the (incomparable!) The Tin Drum by Günter Grass – and its irrepressible midget protagonist Oscar. But how do you compare greatness? Is it right, or even fair? A few months back I fell in love with little Oskarnello and now I’m in love with an altogether different, hapless, yet completely lovable character in Billy Pilgrim. It is possible that the opening chapter and part of the final chapter – the two narrator-centric ‘bookends’ – are superfluous, (which sees The Tin Drum get my vote). This is particularly true of the opening chapter, whereas the final scene rightly returns us to Dresden after the bombing, where Billy is charged with the futile task of digging up the countless corpses. Thankfully we are left with a glimmer of hope in an ending the narrator promised us at the close of the opening chapter – the tweet of a bird as it speaks to Billy. Let us hope that birdsong is a truth every bit as inevitable as war seems to be, for we need every counter-balance to despair we can muster.
You might also like to check-out the ABC’s excellent First Tuesday Book Club’s discussion of Slaughterhouse-Five here.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut