Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Slaughterhouse Five

I picked up Slaughterhouse 5 and skimmed the synopsis on the back. It told me that the book was about the Dresden bombings in World War II. Sure, I thought, I could read something like that. So I was somewhat surprised when, not long after I had started reading, the protagonist had already travelled back in time to another planet where green aliens – that look like toilet plungers – are telling him that, in the perfect book, ‘there is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects’. To me, that sounds more like the end of the universe than a good read. But Vonnegut ensures that Slaughterhouse 5 meets the standards set by his fictional aliens. And, you know what, it’s great...

Billy has become unhinged in time, finding himself travelling back and forward into various moments of his unfortunate life. As a young, gawky teenager he is sent to fight the Germans in the Second World War. Completely unprepared and unwilling to fight, he promptly gets captured by the Nazis and, as a prisoner of war, is imprisoned in a slaughterhouse in Dresden. Soon after Billy arrives, the city gets destroyed by the Allies in the horrific and now infamous bombing of 1945. He finds it a scarring experience. Later in life, and now back in America, Billy is a successful, married Optician, but unfortunately finds himself the sole survivor of a catastrophic plane crash. To add to the bad luck, he later gets abducted by aliens - the Tralfamadorians - and taken light years away to their planet in the sky. There he lives in a glass hemisphere, and is forced to make love to fellow abductee, and naked movie star, Montana Wildhack.

Time travelling, Aliens and WAR 

Vonnegut tells the reader in the first chapter that he has wanted to write a book about the Dresden bombings all his life. In the next breath, though, he claims that there is ‘nothing intelligent to say about a massacre’. He then spends the rest of the book studiously writing around the Dresden bombings. It’s barely mentioned. In fact, the reader is made of aware of the event, and its impact on the world, not by an emotional tear-jerking description, but through the effect it has on just one person’s life – a survivor. Even then, we’re not privy to this survivor’s emotional world. We don’t see him haunted by what he has seen, or crying his guts out to his friends. Instead, we see its effect in the very structure of novel: he simply can’t get away from it. Billy is pulled back and forward through time, always returning to the most banal and brutal moment of his life: the destruction of Dresden.

The time travelling worked for me. Symbolically it packs a punch, and it allows for a plot structure that is nice and fluid. I didn’t quite understand the purpose of the aliens in the same way. What for art thou, little green Tralfamadorians? The aliens do allow an interesting outside perspective on, not just the war, but all other human endeavours. They presented a fatalistic view-point, exposing just how inevitable and meaningless it all is. And the planet, light years away, seems to be representative of Vonnegut's own substantial travellings into the world of science-fiction. Overall, I found it interesting that Billy struggles to get any temporal space from Dresden, but, somehow in distance, he manages to get thousands of light-years away. Billy is slipping around in time, but the aliens tell him that there is no time. Symbolic, cryptic, and green, the Tralfamadorians are a mystery.

Douglas Adams – of all people – provides a good answer to it. In replying to a reader's question about what really happened in one of his books, he replied: ‘The book is a work of fiction. It’s a sequence of words arranged to unfold a story in a reader’s mind... There is no objective real world I am describing, or which I can enter... It doesn’t exist.’ So, with that in mind, perhaps there’s no point studiously trying to understand why the aliens were there at all. Perhaps they just were. Perhaps everything just is. If that sounds a bit like nihilistic fatalism, perhaps it merely echoes the Tralfamadorians' sense of meaning-free timelessness...

The End, My friend

Slaughterhouse 5 isn’t very emotionally engaging. The description of the bombing takes up less than half a page, and there’s no account of any of the characters having a strong reaction to what they’ve seen. I enjoyed the book, and I found the narrative structure novel and fresh. But for a book about war, it didn’t come up and punch me in the guts. Maybe that’s the whole damn point. The meta-lesson is that however big the punch was, it would never be big enough. And, if you weren’t there, you probably don’t really care about it. Perhaps Vonnegut's right, you can’t write anything intelligent about a bombing like Dresden. After all what can you really say, other than that massacres are very horrible and senseless? And we all know that anyway. So it is.


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