Kurt Vonnegut, who died last year, finished writing Slaughterhouse-Five in 1968 after a long gestation. It was published in 1969. I hadn’t read it until this week. Its central theme is the fire bombing of Dresden on 13 February 1945. Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden at the time and saw the devastation firsthand.
It’s the anniversary this week. The bombing has always been controversial. The nature of the attack: was it a war crime? The extent of the death toll: was it grossly overestimated (as the novel seems to do) because of nazi propaganda? Was it hushed up after the war by Allied military and governments?
The novel remains a modern classic for a number of reasons. It is essentially autobiographical though its main character Billy Pilgrim is fictional. Science fiction and time travel are unexpected aspects of this war memoir. It’s from a completely different planet from Norman Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead” that was based on his own war experiences. The planet’s called Tralfamadore to which he is taken by aliens and placed in a zoo. At times you feel like you wandered into the middle of a Phillip K. Dick short story. It’s Ken Kesey in a real asylum.
Billy flashes back and forward in dreams, conscious recollections and excursions in time. He believes that we all live forever and can move between our experiences.
Vonneguts’s “Duty Dance with Death” uses a meta-narrative. Kurt is only a minor character in the story but he reflects on his Armageddon, its broader context and the writing process throughout the book. We even get:
Robert Kennedy, whose summer home is eight miles from the home I live in all year round, was shot two nights ago. He died last night. So it goes.There are lots of modern parallels that could be drawn from this novel. Billy Pilgrim would not make any of them if he time travelled to our world:
Martin Luther King was shot a month ago. He died, too. So it goes.
‘It was alright,’ said Billy. ‘Everything is all right, and everybody has to do exactly what he does.’The death and destruction of this “telegraphic schizophrenic” tale is supposed to speak for itself. So it goes.
"Peace.", wrote Vonnegut at the end of its lengthy sub-title. It's an "anti-glacier" book: Wars "were as easy to stop as glaciers. [They] keep coming."