Book Review: Slaughterhouse 5

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Slaughterhouse 5, by Kurt Vonnegut, is a story about memory, time travel and the futility of war. The author was a prisoner of war in Dresden when it was fire bombed by the allied forces in 1945 killing 135,000 people and devastating the city. This experience is pivotal to the story. As its narrator he opines that, like Lot’s wife, we are not supposed to look back lest we be lost. His protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, has come unstuck in time, travelling backwards and forwards through his life. What is recollection, memory, thought, if not a type of time travel?

‘We went to the New York World’s Fair, saw what the past had been like, […] saw what the future would be like, […]. And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.’

Billy Pilgrim considers time to be like space. In his view death is simply another moment, a feature on the path of a life. People will continue to exist if remembered.

‘We will all live forever no matter how dead we may sometimes seem to be.’

The tale told is a collection of memories, a non linear life story. In many ways Billy would be considered ordinary: a son, husband, father, successful optometrist. In other ways he was extraordinary: prisoner of war, plane crash survivor, time traveller, alien abductee.

When he starts to share some of his more bizarre memories his daughter remonstrates with him, fearing that he is losing his mind. He asks, what is normal? Bookstores are filled with books about sex and murder; the news is of sport and death; people pay to look at pictures of others, like themselves but with no clothes on; they get excited about the price of things that do not exist called stocks and bonds. These things are accepted yet when someone tries to talk of what is not understood it is not believed, it is assumed that it cannot have happened.

At one point in the book Billy is watching a war film backwards.

‘American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off […]. Over France a few German fighter planes […] sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. […] a German city was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. […] everything and everybody as good as new. […] factories were operating night and day dismantling the cylinders […] so they would never hurt anybody ever again.’

War is accepted yet it kills and destroys.

The observations on attitudes are razor sharp. The story resounds with wit and wisdom as it challenges normality. Billy may have conflated fact and fiction at times but who is to judge what is real in anyone else’s life?

I loved this book. I fear that my review cannot do justice to the impact of the writing. I want to quote so much; better that you just go and read it for yourself.

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