Wednesday, 3 June 2020

Book #45

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Prisoner of war, optometrist, time-traveller - these are the life roles of Billy Pilgrim, hero of this miraculously moving, bitter and funny story of innocence faced with apocalypse. 

Holy structurefuck, this was quite a jaunt. As someone who has never explored Vonnegut’s work before, I wasn’t expecting such a renouncement of the ideas on what a novel should be. No beginning, middle, or end; no linear flow in the slightest; no suspense or climax. We see everything, all at once.

And shouldn’t that be how an anti-war novel is written? After all, there’s no real beginnings, middles, or ends to war. Not for the people trying to make sense of it all in whatever section of war they’re experiencing. The moments, although having passed, are carried within them forever.

Billy Pilgrim is a time-traveller. He has no control over when and where he time-travels to, nor does he have a say in when it happens. It just does. One moment he’s at home with his wife in the sixties, the next he’s back in a POW camp in the forties. Billy’s skill relates to his being captured by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, a race who believes that time is not a linear structure, and that every moment in time which has happened, or ever will happen, exists somewhere. Those who die are still alive somewhere. That moment when you most felt alive is still happening. It’s a wonderful, if slightly jarring, concept.

Given the horrific scenes Billy has witnessed and experienced in his life, he takes comfort from the Tralfamadorian notion that each moment is structured just so, exactly as it’s meant to happen. This gives him a way to relinquish any fear of death, as it’s not a permanent fixture. At his own death (which happens, naturally, towards the middle of the book, he says “Farewell, hello, farewell, hello.” So it goes.

Of course, Vonnegut hints that Billy’s time-travelling skills and encounters with an alien race are fictional to everyone except Billy. If so, it leads us to wonder if Billy is inventing new theories on the nature of time simply to help process and store away his terrifying war ordeals, and attempt somewhat to cling on to his sanity. It’s immeasurably sad, and seeing him read or notice things in real time which seemed to have shaped his extraterrestrial tales was heartbreaking.

It’s all very war-damning, and thought-provoking. Vonnegut cleverly uses his words to make us think and understand war, rather than setting out exactly what we should think, or exactly what he thinks.

My favourite of Vonnegut’s mockeries here was the moment Billy sat down, post-war, to watch a war film. Due to his strange relationship with time and space, the film runs backwards, and we see planes returning to their native countries, weapons being sent back to where they were made, and taken apart, with the minerals within them being planted back into the ground “so they never hurt anybody ever.”

Another is Billy’s quiet post-war conversation with a bolshy historian, who simply does not want to hear any of Billy’s recollections. These people record history, and so have the power to record it incorrectly. We still learn about WWII in schools today - how much of this true? How much has been omitted or changed? Are the accounts we study trustworthy? Vonnegut makes clear omissions or amendments are a possibility, almost a given. It’s a frightening, yet completely acceptable judgment.

This is one of the most bizarre, disorientating, and difficult novels I’ve ever read. It’s so intrinsically memorable, so provocative, and that it was able to suggest new ideas to me, despite being published over fifty year ago, is masterful. A truly unique critique of war and its cruelty, one which will tick over in my mind for a long while to come.


“And Lot's wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. So she was turned into a pillar of salt. So it goes.”

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