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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Sunday, 17 May 2009

"Slaughterhouse 5" by Kurt Vonnegut

This is a strange little book written in 1969. It starts with the author telling us that "All this happened, more or less." The first chapter describes the author writing the book; the author also appears in the story: the hero, Billy Pilgrim, meets an American soldier in the latrines; "That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book."

Another oddity is that every time someone dies (which is frequently) the moment is marked with the sentence "So it goes."

A third oddity is that Billy Pilgrim is able to travel forwards and backwards in time. This enables the author to jump around his hero's life and intercut the main narrative, Billy's war adventures, with what happens to him subsequently.

A fourth oddity is that Billy is kidnapped by aliens on a flying saucer and taken back to their planet and exhibited in a zoo (they also kidnap a soft porn actress and bring her back so he has someone to mate with). One suspects that this part of Billy's life (and possibly the time travel) has been caused by brain damage suffered during a plane crash (it is only afterwards that Billy tells other people of his alien experiences) and his extensive reading of the science fiction of a little known author called Kilgore Trout (who one further suspects is an alter ego of Vonnegut; Trout appears in other Vonnegut books).

The visit to Tralfamadore teaches Billy about the nature of time. The Tralfamadorians are able to perceive the fourth dimension. The can see present, past and future. They say it is like a landscape: there are beautiful bits and ugly bits. Having a good time is inevitable; having a bad time is inevitable. These moments are all written into the landscape. The secret of happiness, for the Tralfamadorians is to enjoy the beautiful places in a landscape and let your eyes skip over the ugly places.

The structure of the novel, with Billy and the reader skipping backwards and forwards in time, and with the intrusion of the author, reflects this concept of time held by the Tralfamadorians. Tralfamadorian novels are also structured this way, randomly jumbled, without narrative thread, and the structure is designed by the author to look beautiful as a photographer structures a scene.

Billy's soft porn mate has a locket between her bare breasts on which are engraved the words: "God give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference."

This simply written book, inspired by the fire bombing of Dresden when more lives were lost than at Hiroshima, is matter-of-factly tolerant of humanity. Billy impregnates his (Earth) wife to make his son who will become a Green Beret in Vietnam: "Billy made a noise like a small, rusty hinge. He had just emptied his seminal vesicles into Valencia ... 'Would you talk about the war now, if I wanted you to?' said Valencia. In a tiny cavity in her great body she was assembling the materials for a Green Beret." When he and other soldiers are in a communal shower: "Their penises were shriveled and their balls were retracted. Reproduction was not the main business of the evening."

One of the most delightful moments of the book comes when Billy sees the fire-bombing of Dresden like a film running backwards in time. "The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires .... The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes .... When the bombers got back to their base ....factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly it was mainly women who did this work."

Simple prose that strips people naked and accepts their frailty. "Billy ... assured the fatherless boy that his father was very much alive still in moments the boy would see again and again." So it goes.

An interesting piece of trivia is that Vonnegut quotes a book from British historian David Irving who writes sympathetically about the German suffering in WWII. This is than same Irving who lost a spectacular libel trial against Penguin and later went to prison in Austria for Nazi sympathies and holocaust denial; he wrote The Destruction of Dresden in 1963. It is nowadays believed that Irving over-estimated the number of people killed in Dresden so Vonnegut's figures are wrong.

May 2009, 157 pages

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