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When Lost Time is not searched but stubbornly imposes itself

Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut.

Kurt Vonnegut openly states that this book is about his experience of WWII. He was a war prisoner working in a slaughterhouse in Dresden when the city was bombed by British and American air forces. He was one of the seven American prisoners who survived. This bombing turned Dresden from a beautiful earthly city to a place looking like moon.

 Can life be more ironic than surviving a massacre thanks to a shelter in a slaughterhouse ?

 The first chapter of the novel is an introduction in which Kurt Vonnegut describes the genesis of this book, published in 1969. He had been struggling to write about the bombing in Dresden for years and explains why the book is dedicated to Gerhard Müller and Mary O’Hare. The first one was the German cab driver he and his war companion Bernard V O’Hare befriended with when visiting Dresden for this book. The latter is O’Hare’s wife, Mary, who was angry that Kurt Vonnegut would write a book about his war experience. She thought it would show war as glamorous and she resented that. Kurt Vonnegut promised her he would not write anything turning this book into a tribute to war. I read this first chapter one night, and in the next morning, powerful as it was, it lingered in my mind. The afternoon on that same day, when visiting an Air and Space Museum, I experienced what Mary O’Hare had feared. The history of aircraft was told in such a way that it shown war as attractive. Almost everything was about war, a little about civil companies and nothing about commercial, humanitarian, or postal aircraft. It struck me as I was starting Slaughterhouse Five, would it have struck me the same way without it ? I’m not sure. Back to the book.

Kurt Vonnegut tells the story of Billy Pilgrim who was sent to WWII as a chaplain’s assistant in 1944 and was a war prisoner in Germany. Like many soldiers, Billy resumed a “normal” life after the war, as anyone expected him to do. He married a rich girl, passed his exam as an optometrist and succeeded in the business. He became rich and was well acquainted and praised by the local bourgeoisie, in Ilium, New York. He would live a humdrum life, but “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time” and has spent time on another planet, Tralfalmadore. The Tralfamadorians are a people who observe Earthlings and have a totally different conception of life and time.

  “All moments, past, present and future always have existed, always will exist. (…) They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have on Earth that one moment follows the other one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone, it is gone forever”.

There is no need to mourn when someone dies, because the moments where he is alive still exist. In this idea of time, there is no lost time, every moment is permanent. War souvenirs pop up in Billy’s everyday life. Like in Proust, smells, colours, scenes bring him back that Lost Time, except that, contrary to the Narrator in Proust, he would rather not remember. These moments still vividly exist for him.

I was impressed by the style and the construction of this novel and spent some time in dictionaries, looking for words I did not understand, because every word seemed purposely chosen and there to contribute to the story. Vonnegut’s little sentences are walking in line, like obedient soldiers. Precise. Well-ordered. Never stopping. The novel is full of cross-references, which show how Billy’s war time leaks into any moment of his post-war life. Vonnegut uses the technique of repetition for this. I noticed three examples of repetitions, but there are probably more.

The first one is a “striped banner of orange and black”, which is on the train carrying the war prisoners. Later, the tent that Billy’s daughter had for her wedding reception was striped and “The strips were orange and black”. The second one is when Billy walks among other American war prisoners. He sees “corpses with bare feet that were blue and ivory”. This image of blue and ivory bare feet is also used twice to describe Billy’s feet in his home in Ilium and once more for corpses. The third one is a dog barking, first just before Billy is caught by the Germans. “The dog had a voice like a big bronze gong”. Later, this image is used again both for civilian and war time.

 These repetitions create the effect of the flashes which occur in Billy’s mind. We understand that at any time in his everyday life, a word, a sensation can bring him back to war. Like in Tralfamagore, the past moments are not dead, they still live and can be lived again. 

Moreover, to emphasize the number of occasions in which death is involved, every time a death-related word is used, the sentence “So it goes” ends the paragraph. It can be an actual death (someone gets killed) or not (Some champagne without bubbles is described as “dead”). Counting the number of “so it goes” would give the number of times death is involved.

Sometimes, an interruption from the author reminds us that  it is his story too. “I was there. So was my old war buddy, Bernard V. O’Hare”

In the end, everything fits like a big puzzle. It is wonderfully and cleverly crafted. Besides this extraordinary net of people and feelings, I like Vonnegut’s sense of humour in describing things or people, like for Maggie White :

“She was a dull person, but a sensational invitation to make babies. Men looked at her and wanted to fill her up with babies right away”

 Billy looks like the Candide of Voltaire to me. In English, Candide is categorized as “satire”. In French we say “conte philosophique”, literally “philosophical fairy-tale”. For me, this is how I would call Slaughterhouse Five. It allies the magical elements which are natural in fairy-tales and the philosophical quest and critic of our society. Like Candide, Slaughterhouse Five is built on real historical events. Both characters live through atrocities but take things as they come and look ridiculous. Candide’s optimism is ludicrous and Billy is dressed like a clown. Both have a personal philosophy which is their inner compass. 

In addition, it seems to me that Tralfamagore is a mean to bring to life Bergon’s theory of Duration through science fiction elements (a saucer, aliens, another planet, etc.). I am not educated enough in philosophy to develop fully that idea, but I have the intuition that it is related. Like Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Slaughterhouse Five is a thought on Time and Memory. (I’m also reading Proust and I think there is something between Bergson’s theory and Proust too)

And of course, Slaughterhouse Five is known to be an antiwar novel.

It questions the justification of the bombing in Dresden. How Americans relieve their conscience of killing innocent civilians by comparing the number of victims of Dresden to that of the victims from the Nazis. Kurt Vonnegut does not accept the rationalization of this act and its deceptive justification. He still thinks that this bombing was unnecessary to win the war and caused the death of 135,000 persons and destroyed a beautiful city. When Billy leaves from his first war prisoner camp to Dresden, his English co-prisoners tell him he is lucky to be sent there because “You needn’t worry about bombs, by the way. Dresden is an open city. It is undefended, and contains no war industries or troop concentration of any importance”.

In Slaughterhouse Five, all good soldiers and war lovers are dangerous persons in civilian life. For example, among the other American prisoners, Roland Weary is a distasteful and crazy man, whose main interests in life are weapons and torture tools and Paul Lazzaro is obsessed by revenge, and can wait for years before acting. Billy’s own son, a Green Beret during the Vietnam war is described like this:

“This was a boy who had flunked out of high school, who had been an alcoholic at sixteen, who had run with a rotten bunch of kids, who had been arrested for tipping over hundreds of tombstones in a Catholic cemetery one time. He was all straightened out now. His posture was wonderful and his shoes were shined and his trousers were pressed, and he was a leader of men”

In Kurt Vonnegut’s mind, one must be a freak to love war. There is no comradeship between the American war prisoners, something often put forward by former soldiers. The American soldiers are all anti-heroes, poor little human beings and only children.

 There would be a lot more to say about Slaughterhouse Five. I did not relate the criticism of the American society included in this book, through the articles of a character named Campbell. The question of free-will is also important and discussed. I could have written pages about the construction of this novel, but I think this post is long enough.

To conclude, I am indebted to Max Cairnduff from Pechorin’s Journal for giving me the title of this book when I asked for recommendations to discover SF authors. Thanks a lot, I loved it.

  1. August 17, 2010 at 4:29 pm

    I’m glad again that you liked it. This is SF as pure allegory, it’s not about the future or about aliens or indeed about anything outside it’s world and time. I think it’s a marvellous novel, painful and persuasive.

    His novel Galapagos is in some ways more straightforwardly SF, but is also a lot of fun with some wry comments about whether human intelligence is really that great a thing to have. He’s an interesting writer, blackly cynical and with an appalling view of humanity and yet there’s a redeeming affection running through it. I find him a compassionate writer, but also a disillusioned one.

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    • August 18, 2010 at 5:27 am

      I think that like Romain Gary, who was fighting during WWII in the RAF, Vonnegut likes the weakness in man. Gary says that weakness “allows hope”. As we are weak ourselves, we are compassionate. We can feel empathy. People relying on strenght stand on their own two feet by themselves and never have the weakness to doubt or to try to walk in someone else’s shoes. He thinks that weakness and empathy feed tolerance, and I agree with that. That’s also why you can’t judge the villagers in that book you recently reviewed.

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  2. September 16, 2010 at 9:01 pm

    Conte philosophique, not a bad way to describe it.
    A book was published recently that includes letters he wrote to his family during his time as a soldier – very interesting.

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    • September 16, 2010 at 9:50 pm

      Does “conte philosophique” have an equivalent in English ?

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      • September 16, 2010 at 11:06 pm

        I don’t think it does. Anyone in need of an equivalent phrase would probably just use the French. Highbrow, but that’s the way it is.

        Vonnegut wrote some stuff I don’t like too much, but S-5 and Cat’s Cradle are fantastic.

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  3. Lee Monks
    October 18, 2010 at 7:15 pm

    Great review. Have you tried Bluebeard or Breakfast of Champions? For me, Vonnegut’s best two. Both masterpieces.

    Like

  1. January 1, 2011 at 12:05 am
  2. January 31, 2017 at 7:02 am

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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