Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five takes its place alongside Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 as one of the truly compelling (and oftentimes satirical) commentaries on the horrors of World War II. I have been intending to read Vonnegut’s classic work for a good bit of my life now and regret that it took me this long to do so (actually, my Kindle read it to me on a trip to Memphis and back).
The book follows the story of a young World War II soldier named Billy Pilgrim, who, like Vonnegut himself (who appears in his own novel), survived the hellish firebombing of Dresden by American and British forces in 1945. As a prisoner of war assigned by the Germans to a construction detail in the city of Dresden, Vonnegut and other American soldiers survived the firebombing while holed up in an underground German slaughterhouse (#5).
Vonnegut’s approach to explaining and describing the horrors of Dresden through the experiences of Billy Pilgrim is masterful. The book has rightly taken its place as a modern classic.
Pilgrim, Vonnegut tells us, has become “unstuck in time.” It’s the late 1960’s and Pilgrim, now a widower in his 40’s, begins to tell people, much to the chagrine of his embarrassed daughter, that he was once kidnapped by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. So the story is essentially Pilgrim bouncing from one point of time to another, including the war, his childhood and his abduction by the Tralfamadorians.
As the tale progresses, Pilgrim reveals a mind that has resigned itself to a kind of fatalism concerning the fallenness of humanity, though he seems to want to hold on to free will as a principle. He has fascinating conversations with the Tralfamadorians concerning free will, concerning the nature of time, concerning the elusiveness of peace and concerning life itself. He shows an amazing and often humorous sense of detachment and disinterest in the events of the war, to the great irritation of the other American soldiers and the general amusement of his captors.
Vonnegut uses the character of Billy Pilgrim in profoundly effective ways to offer observations and hints concerning his own resignation to the maddening absurdity of war and the vicious cycles in which humanity finds itself. Though an agnostic/atheist/humanist (depending on which of Vonnegut’s statements you read), he makes frequent and (apparently) positive references to Jesus, most interestingly when he mentions that the Tralfamadorians are more interested in studying Charles Darwin (who, Vonnegut tells us, saw dead bodies as an inevitable reality of existence) than Jesus Christ. In another instance, Pilgrim chooses to read a science fiction book about a man who decides to go back in time 2,000 years to the events of the crucifixion to see if Jesus really died. Pilgrim is depicted as a Christian, though he possibly loses his faith. It is hard to tell.
Again, the book’s designation as a modern classic is well deserved. Slaughterhouse Five is a thought-provoking discussion of human nature, life, death (every death scene in the book is tellingly followed by the refrain, “So it goes.”), sin, virtue, war, society and human nature. It is a helpful, interesting and, in many ways, saddening glimpse into one agnostic’s efforts to make sense of the depravity of man.