Sunday, 28 April 2013

Indiana - Vonnegut's 'Slaughterhouse 5'

I was vaguely aware of the name 'Kurt Vonnegut' before I started researching for this blog post, however, I'm not sure if I'd ever have made it as far as reading one of his novels, which I have now done, having just finished Slaughterhouse 5 (1969), probably his most famous book and a seminal work of the post-war period.

A satirical novel about the bombing of Dresden?

Whilst a satirical novel about the bombing of Dresden might not sound like an easy read, actually, Slaughterhouse 5 is incredibly accessible, enjoyable and beautifully written.  I don't usually have a lot of patience for satirical or humorous novels, so I surprised myself by liking Vonnegut's book, as much as I did.  The title of the novel itself is satirical - when I first picked it up, I assumed there would be a climatic scene in a slaughterhouse where someone (possibly 5 people) would be murdered.  In fact, the slaughterhouse is a refuge for the main character of the novel and ensures he survives the bombing of Dresden when thousands of other people perish. 

Theme: Humour

Vonnegut uses humour to deal with a topic which is, actually, incredibly traumatic.  His position is ostensibly anti-war, having experienced the bombing of Dresden first-hand.  Vonnegut, like his main character, Billy Pilgrim, creates a parallel fantasy world where he can escape the real horror of war and look at it from a slightly skewed and sidelong point of view.  I guess there is nothing more ironic than an American of German descent witnessing the destruction of a German city from the viewpoint of an enemy combatant. 

Although we mostly associate laughter with the feeling of being happy, I'm sure most of you reading this blog post will also recognise the connection between fear and laughter.  Why do we laugh when we're afraid?  Well, I guess, it dispels some of the tension in a situation.  Being Irish, I'm also very conscious of our national tendency towards humour, historically a respite from the horrors of being a colonised nation. 

Theme: The unreliability of time

Dresden after the bombing by Deutsches Bundesarchiv
One of the most interesting themes of Slaughterhouse 5 is the unreliability of time.  Vonnegut very clearly weaves the narrative around events in Billy Pilgrim's life, as he comes unstuck in time and travels backwards and forwards to different periods of his life, as well as to his parallel life on a faraway planet called Tralfamadore.  Vonnegut connects the different time periods and parallel lives of Billy Pilgrim with some beautiful images and continuity in the elements of the narrative.

For example, when, as an older man, Billy Pilgrim survives a plane crash in Vermont, Vonnegut places some Austrian tourists in the vicinity, so Billy comes around to the sound of the German language, immediately transporting him back to the forest in Luxembourg where he was taken prisoner by the Germans in the Second World War. 

It's a real joy to join Billy Pilgrim on this narrative roller coaster backwards and forwards through time and across the universe!  It also reminded me a little bit of someone in their dotage, confusing one period of their life with another, each being equally real.  By breaking with the constraints of a time-logical narrative, Vonnegut somehow removes a fear of death that would otherwise dominate the story that he wants to tell.

Theme: Sexual (im)potency

I was quite interested in Vonnegut's portrayal of sexuality in Slaughterhouse 5.  When Billy is first captured by a young German soldier, he describes him as a 'heavenly Androgyne' and 'as beautiful as Eve'.  I think Vonnegut is expressing the feeling of being captured as akin to sexual passivity or impotency, ie. when you give up control to your captor - it's a strangely erotic experience.  Apparently, Slaughterhouse 5 was the first work of fiction which referred to the fact that 'fairies' (gay men) were sent to concentration camps by the Nazis. 

The old sex and death routine, so popular in the 19th century, also makes an appearance in Vonnegut's novel - Billy falls asleep on the train on the way to his father's funeral and wakes up with a massive erection!  His oedipus complex is certainly complex!  According to the novel, Billy is very well endowed, but his sex life on earth is unfulfilled.  By contrast, on Tralfamadore, Billy is a great lover and satisfies the fictional porn-star, Montana Wildhack, even if their love-making is arranged by the Tralfamadorians, who want to observe human reproduction. 

Theme: Illogical relationships with women

Billy's relationship with women in the novel is, at best, absurd.  When he returns from the war and has a nervous breakdown, he is admitted to a psychiatric ward.  His mother, 'a perfectly nice, standard-issue, brown-haired, white woman with a high-school education' comes to visit him and he describes her thus:

She upset Billy simply by being his mother.  She made him feel embarrassed and ungrateful and weak because she had gone to so much trouble to give him life, and to keep that life going, and Billy really didn't like life at all.

Shortly after the scene with his mother, Billy describes his relationship with his wife, Valencia:

Billy didn't want to marry ugly Valencia.  She was one of the symptoms of his disease.  He know he was going crazy when he heard himself proposing marriage to her . . .

To Billy, his relationship with his wife defies all logic and merely serves to confirm his insanity.

Theme: The annoyingly cheerful Englishmen

I was amused by Vonnegut's depiction of the annoyingly cheerful Englishmen that Billy meets when he arrives at the Prisoner of War camp in Germany.  Billy arrives with a ragtag bunch of American POWs, looking like a 'filthy flamingo'.  The English POWs welcome them with a very cheerful song, Hail, Hail, the Gang's all here! which was featured in that classic English musical, The Pirates of Penzance.  According to Billy 'they made the war look stylish and reasonable, and fun'. 

Knowing Vonnegut's anti-war sentiment, you can read between the lines and sense the resentment that the American POWs feel when confronted by this jolly bunch of Englishmen.  Sure enough, the cheery welcome soon turns to hostility, as the Englishmen look down their nose at the Americans and despise them for their ragged appearances and low spirits. 

The Englishmen seem to get on very well with their German captors, playing chess together and sharing a common disdain for the general appearance of the American POWs.  In a very subtle way, Vonnegut highlights the sense of separation between the Americans and the Europeans, not to mention the absurdity of American soldiers fighting in Europe, many miles away from home, with an 'ally' that seems to have more in common with the enemy!

Theme: The joy of human nature

One of the things I enjoyed most about Slaughterhouse 5 was the way human nature penetrated the absurd situations that Billy found himself in.  A reference is made to Lot's wife and how she couldn't help looking back, although warned not to - Vonnegut describes her looking back as a plain and simple 'human reaction' and there is a real sense of optimism in the idea that people will still behave like people, even in unnatural situations such as war. 

Another example of this is when the American POWs arrive at the camp in Germany, the German soldiers laugh with relief, as they realise how pathetic the enemy is.  Again laughter as a release for anxiety!

There is so much going on in this novel that I can't hope to do it justice in a short blog post, so why not order a copy and read it for yourself! 

Image credits:

The image of Dresden after the bombing has been released by the Deutsches Bundesarchiv under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.  You can see more information at the file description page on Wikimedia commons - Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1994-041-07 / CC-BY-SA [CC-BY-SA-3.0-de], via Wikimedia Commons

I've also embedded two videos from YouTube.

The first is the official trailer for the 1972 film directed by George Roy Hill.  I haven't yet seen this movie, but it's on my 'to do' list!

The second is a very clever recording of Hail, Hail, the Gang's all here uploaded by Dan Priest, which shows original footage from an WW2 entertainment show for Russian and US soldiers

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