Kurt Vonnegut had a hard time translating his war experiences in the bombing of Dresden into a novel. He bemoaned the difficulties in the open to the final published work, Slaughterhouse-Five, which didn’t appear for more than two decades after World War II. By that time, details of the apocalyptic bombing that incinerated a peaceful, architecturally and culturally rich city and left it flattened and lifeless had emerged. The number of people killed in Dresden was greater than the death toll from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Destroying the city and its inhabitants served no strategic purpose. It was, as so many incidents are in war, a thoughtless and horrible mistake.
Billy Pilgrim is Vonnegut’s stand-in witness to events and Billy’s ingenuous and wry commentary is both cutting and humorous. Vonnegut managed to write a powerful indictment of war, an uncompromising insistence on common sense and compassion, and a very funny novel that never strays too far from the truth of what happened to its author as a prisoner of war trapped in the funeral pyre that was Dresden.
As a soldier, Pilgrim is clueless, feckless and blessed with an odd kind of good fortune. He survives bloody battle, desperate flight for survival in the dead of winter, capture and imprisonment, forced labor and an incendiary disaster through no effort of his own. He is an unintentional clown and a buffoon but he lands on his feet—clad in a pair of stolen glittering silver boots—every time. His observations highlight the cruelty, inhumanity and sheer stupidity of wartime behavior and they are so spot-on and droll that you share his experience. This is no simple trick because his experience is horrific. What Vonnegut saw and reported was sickening and enraging. What Billy Pilgrim relates is a kind of Forrest Gump-like account that makes you laugh even as you recoil.
As an optometrist, husband and survivor of life’s accidents and vicissitudes after the war, Pilgrim slips in and out of mental time travel to convey the mash-up of wartime experience, its social and personal repercussions, the long view of a life’s history with events both anticipated and seen at a distance. He insists that he has been kidnapped by aliens and displayed in a zoo in which American culture is viewed from millions of light years away—and found curious and crazy. His successful adaptation to a career as the head of an optometry practice, his family, his social standing, are upended by his persistent late-in-life candor. Billy’s reality might be the result of a serious head injury and very delayed post traumatic stress disorder. Or it might just be the truth.
The things that happened in the war sections of Vonnegut’s classic fiction about Dresden are not fiction. Most of what he wrote in his own long career was his life and experience, pretty thinly disguised. Slaughterhouse-Five is no exception. The book’s name is the name of the meat warehouse where Vonnegut and his fellow American prisoners were housed in Dresden. Its deep cellar was a safe bunker during the bombing and those who sheltered there, with a few hanging animal carcasses, survived. The memory of what they endured and what they witnessed survived, too. It lives on in a novel that is an hilarious but unambiguous condemnation of war that reads as relevant today as it did when Vonnegut published it during the Vietnam war in 1969. Billy Pilgrim was a time traveler and a prophet. We are still firebombing our Dresdens back into the dark ages. Vonnegut held up a funhouse mirror but we don’t seem to have understood what it reveals.
Slaughterhouse-Five: A Novel Kurt Vonnegut | Dial Press 2009