Brutal and humane…
😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
The narrator, having survived WW2, intends to write a book about the bombing of Dresden, but can’t seem to think of anything to say. He visits an army buddy to share memories in a bid to get himself started, but his buddy’s wife is angry, thinking he will write yet another book glorifying war. He promises he won’t – and then he begins to tell the fable of Billy Pilgrim.
Billy Pilgrim is gifted, or cursed, with the ability to time-travel backwards and forwards through his life. He was given this gift by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, who abducted him and put him on display in a zoo on their planet. They also taught him that, in a life where time-travel is real, no-one can truly be said to die, since they will still be alive in their own past and can be visited there. We first meet Billy years after the war has finished, when he has become a successful optometrist. But as we travel back with him through his past, we learn about his war experiences. Like the narrator, he was a survivor of Dresden and we gradually learn of the horrors he witnessed there.
“You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”
“No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?”
“I say, ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?’”
What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too.
And even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.
Written during the height of the Vietnam War, Vonnegut uses his own experiences of an earlier war to produce a powerful protest novel, one that concentrates on the effects of war at the human, individual level. I’ve always thought this book was a sci-fi novel, and indeed that is how it tends to be classified, but in fact it’s nothing of the sort. Billy’s time-travel experiences and his meeting with the aliens arise clearly from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder – they are his way of coping with the death and destruction he has witnessed.
The main story is of Billy’s time as a POW in Germany, when he was sent to work in Dresden just before the fire-bombing which destroyed that city and killed many thousands of civilians in the space of a few nights. There is a terrible anger in it, but it’s hidden beneath a kind of laconic manner of telling – a déjà vu, que sera, sera, feeling, summed up by the constant refrain of ‘So it goes’ every time a death is mentioned – as if the narrator is saying that anger is pointless in face of the inevitability of war. Frequently a sentence or paragraph is devastating in its perceptiveness and the cruelty of its clarity. Vonnegut never dwells mawkishly on the horrors, simply tells them and moves on. But, like the anger, sympathy and empathy are both bubbling beneath the surface, making this a profoundly emotional read despite its brevity and understatement. It manages the difficult balancing act of being simultaneously brutal and deeply humane, both bleak and blackly funny.
Vonnegut uses the time-travelling aspects brilliantly to show how Billy’s mind sets up defences to deal with the memories it can’t handle. It also allows him to create some wonderfully powerful imagery, such as when Billy finds himself watching war movies that are running in reverse.
American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses, took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation… But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.
Vonnegut also touches on Christianity, on questions of free will and predestination, and gives a pretty excoriating picture of an America obsessed with wealth and celebrity, leaving the vast majority of people who never achieve those things feeling like failures. He seems to be suggesting that religion won’t truly touch these people unless we look differently at how we perceive the idea of Christ, as ordinary rather than exceptional. While intriguing, I wasn’t at all clear where he really intended to go with this argument, and was ultimately unconvinced that it was much more than a clever conceit. But it’s a minor part of the book, so didn’t detract from the greater anti-war message.
Overall, I thought this was pretty stunning. The understated style of the writing, the use of the time-travelling to let us see the effects of war at a very human level and to allow Vonnegut to do some philosophising on what humanity means, the imagery, and even the black humour, all add power to this brief novel, so that it achieves a depth that many much longer novels never reach. One that fully deserves its status as a classic.