Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-five (1969, Vintage 2000)
Before the meeting: I was reading while walking the dog outside the local supermarket when a young woman with fashionable piercings and skin art called to me, ‘That’s a good book!’
So it still has currency.
Do I need to tell you that Slaughterhouse-five presents itself, in its first and last chapters, as Vonnegut’s attempt to wrangle into story form his experience as a prisoner of war who survived the bombing of Dresden in 1945? His way of rising to the challenge is to tell a tale of Billy Pilgrim, a chaplain’s assistant in the war, who was also in Dresden at that time. I say also because once or twice the authorial voice intrudes to tell us that he was there, that the person who did or said something was ‘the author of this book’.
Billy Pilgrim comes unstuck in time, which adds an element of quirk while providing an excuse for the narrative to jump all over the place (evidently excuses were needed back in the 60s), and has some vaguely science-fictional adventures, which aren’t fleshed out to any interesting degree, but allow the novel to present a point of view where none of the terrible events it describes really matter, because according to the little green Tralfamadorians who abduct Billy, every moment in time coexists with every other moment, so there’s no point getting upset about any particular moment.
The main event of the book, as announced in the first chapter, is the bombing of Dresden. We read the whole book with growing dread, waiting for it to happen. A lot of that dread depends on our knowing that it’s not an invented atrocity, and a number of historical sources are quoted to chilling effect. We are told that the fire bombing of Dresden is the biggest massacre ever perpetrated in a single day – bigger than Hiroshima, bigger even than the firebombing of Tokyo.
The power of the story doesn’t stand or fall by that claim, but alarm bells went off for me when the authority Vonnegut quotes is David Irving, the most famous of all Holocaust deniers. A quick look on the internet reveals that Irving’s claim, as repeated by Vonnegut, that 135 000 people were killed in Dresden on one night is almost certainly wildly exaggerated. The actual figure is more like 40 000. I’m a bit shocked that Vintage Books didn’t include a note in the 2000 edition that Vonnegut’s source is notoriously unreliable.
The young woman who called out to me may also have done a quick internet search, but if she didn’t she and all the others who are rediscovering this excellent book will be misled.
Still, it’s the book that gave us ‘So it goes’. This phrase occurs after every mention of a death, whether of parasites in a delousing shower or of the citizens of Hiroshima in an extensive self-exculpatory quote from Harry Truman. After a while this feels annoyingly mechanical, but again a little while and it’s tolling like a funeral bell. Evidently some people read the book as endorsing the Tralfamadorian view that there’s no point getting upset about terrible things. In my reading the unremitting ‘So it goes’ reminds us that every life needs to be mourned.
After the meeting: There were six of us, and we met over an excellent meal in Nithik’s Kitchen, an Indian restaurant in Rozelle. Half of us were revisiting the book; all of us enjoyed it; one numbered it among the best books we’d read in the group.
We differed about whether Billy’s travelling back and forth in time was really happening or whether he was escaping into fantasy. I thought that was crystal clear: Billy is actually unstuck in time. I don’t think the narrative is all that worried about the mechanics of his unstuckness, but within the story it’s real. Since the ‘author’ is part of the story, I’m happy to accept that the time travel is his escape hatch, that is, a way of writing about Dresden without being overwhelmed. But in Billy’s world, it’s real.Clearly other readings are available.
The question arose of how much the US–Vietnam War is a presence. Billy’s son becomes a Green Beret, and though he hardly appears as a character his heroic–patriotic version of war stands in stark contrast to the version signalled in the book’s subtitle, ‘The Children’s Crusade’, and embodied in Billy’s story. Those of us who read it back then certainly embraced it as part of the anti-war movement and would have been shocked to hear that some people read it as advocating a quietist, fatalistic attitude to the horrors of war. For those who were had just read it for the first time, Vietnam was perhaps not so strong a presence, but nor was it irrelevant to their reading.