Saturday, January 03, 2015

"Slaughterhouse Five"

So many editions of Slaughterhouse Five! (google image result)
This week, I decided to reread Slaughterhouse Five. This famous novel is a thorough attack on the practice of war -- it's subtitled "The Children's Crusade." The central point: soldiers are children sent by grown-ups who should have more sense than to mess things up so much. An irresistible point.

Vonnegut's own experience as a prisoner of war in Dresden, where he survived the infamous fire bombing by having been sent to an underground prison area, informs the book. However, the book includes less direct narrative of his memoirs than I thought I remembered from earlier readings. Vonnegut sometimes says "I was there" when he describes the war experiences of Billy Pilgrim, the time traveler at the center of the book. I mistakenly recalled more first-person accounts. I think my memory tricked me because I translated the impact of the book into more of a polemic and less of an sci-fi type story than it actually is.

Hunger was a predominant theme of the war scenes. The people of Dresden were starving. The soldiers were starving  -- except for some English prisoners who received disproportionate rations and provided an extremely ironic contrast to all the individuals who were intensely suffering. (Irony: big in Vonnegut! But you knew that.)

When the prisoners, including Billy Pilgrim and by implication Vonnegut himself, are marched into Dresden, Vonnegut says: "Thousands of people were on the sidewalks, going home from work. They were watery and putty-colored, having eaten mostly potatoes during the past two years." The slaughterhouse that becomes their prison "wasn't a busy place any more. Almost all the hooved animals in Germany had been killed and eaten and excreted by human beings, mostly soldiers. So it goes." (p. 191 & 193)

The American prisoners are led to a kitchen where a war widow was impatiently waiting for them. She has soup and black bread for them. "All the real soldiers are dead," she says when she meets them. (p. 203)

Billy Pilgrim and his fellow soldiers are put to work at the former slaughterhouse, making a malt syrup to be used as a vitamin and mineral supplement for pregnant women who presumably have no real food to eat. All the syrup workers secretly sampled as they worked, twirling forbidden spoons in the syrup pots to make a "gooey lollipop." The excessive quantity of syrup gives Billy "a boiling case of heartburn." The other workers were "skinny and hollow-eyed." Their skin blossomed "with small sores," as did their mouths, throats, and intestines. "The malt syrup ... contained only a few of the vitamins and minerals every Earthling needs." (p. 207)

It's very hard to summarize this strange story of the time-traveling and space-traveling Billy Pilgrim. In a way, I am not very fond of the episodes on the far-off planet where space and time are indistinguishable, and where Billy Pilgrim is a captive in a zoo. But somehow I end up convinced that this is a logical part of the story. Vonnegut was a wonderful author. Who could resist saying this: "So it goes."

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