Sunday, July 10, 2011

52 Books in 52 Weeks - Week 28 - Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children's Crusade

For the 28th week of the 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge, I'm reading Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children's Crusade by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. after a friend recommended that I read this book.

Honestly, I approached the book with a bit of trepidation given part of the title: slaughterhouse. I wondered why in the world he'd recommend a book with a rather violent word. Certainly, I thought, the type of action in this book would not be pleasant.

Maybe it was, perhaps, because I told him about the book I read last week called Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. Excellent book...though quite a disturbing topic about which to read (bubonic plague). What I found fascinating about this well-written book was that the characters are very similar to how people would act in any disaster or crisis.

Some people choose to run away from a crisis in fear; others choose a range of negative behavior; and others come forth and truly made a difference in helping comfort those affected by the disaster (in the case of Year of Wonders, it was the plague).

Back to Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children's Crusade.  This is a satirical novel about a soldier's time-traveling, World War II, and life experiences.

Billy Pilgrim is the main character who is a Chaplain's Assistant.  He is an ill-trained, fatalistic, and disoriented American soldier who doesn't like wars. During the Battle of the Bulge, Billy is captured by the Germans who put him and his fellow prisoners in a former slaughterhouse in Dresden. Their building is known as "Slaughterhouse Number 5."

Both the German guards and POWs hide in a deep cellar. Because of their safe hiding place, they are some of the few survivors of the city-destroying firestorm during the Bombing of Dresden in World War II.

After the war and being in a plane crash, Billy believes he was kidnapped by extraterrestrial aliens from the planet Tralfamadore where they exhibit him in a zoo. He becomes "unstuck in time" and experiences past and future events repetitively and out of sequence.

Although Billy truly believes he can travel in time, I think these are hallucinations or a way of coping with the effects of war. Some are memories of events he went through...while others are just fantasies and mental images he creates to simply get through his life.

As Billy travels (or believes he travels) forward and backward in time, he relives moments of his life - fantasy and real. He spends time in Dresden, in the War, on Tralfamadore, walking in deep snow before his German capture, in his post-war married life in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s, and in the time of his murder by Lazzaro.

All of these moments and locations (with the exception of Tralfamadore) deal with misery, sadness, boredom, and death. Reliving these experiences - and revisiting places which have brought such pain - is something Billy does throughout the book and his life.

Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children's Crusade is, perhaps, one of the most non-linear, unusual narratives I have ever read. That being said, it is a fascinating book about free will, fate, and the disordered nature of human beings. The writing style emphasizes the mental chaos and confusion that Billy felt because of the effect of the war and of seeing Dresden.

The one thing that was a bit bothersome about the book was the author's overuse of the phrase "So it goes." Apparently it is used 106 times in this 186-page book. The phrase is a method of transition when death has happened or is mentioned, and the author moves onto a different topic. It underscores the unimportance and insignificance that he places on death.

It's interesting to note that the author himself was in Dresden when the bombing happened. There are a few times when the author indicates that he was present at certain places, including Dresden. Vonnegut did this by saying "That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book."

Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children's Crusade is ranked the 18th greatest English novel of the 20th century by Modern Library. It is recognized as Vonnegut's most influential and popular work. It is certainly, in my opinion, worth reading.

1 comment:

Trece said...

I read Vonnegut some 35+ years ago. I knew an actor who was in the Slaughterhouse-Five movie (it tanked). I am not sure which of Vonnegut's books this quote came from, but I cherish it:
"The purpose of life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved". I am sure that Vonnegut was an unhappy man, but some of his books and short stories are a real delight.
Forgive me if I've already mentioned it, but his first wife's book "Angels Without Wings" is simply brilliant. Her name was Jane Vonnegut Yarmolinsky.