Richard's Reviews > Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
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Mar 21, 12

Read in May, 1975

I think this is one of those "love it/hate it" polarizing books. Fans of World War II history would appreciate its basis in factual events, but may be off-put by its use of space aliens as characters. Science fiction fans would appreciate the concept of time travel in a late-1960's novel, but may not appreciate the silly description of the alien Tralfamadorians Vonnegut provides. If you appreciate a book that doesn't follow a linear narrative, you may still be disappointed by this book's simplicity.

"Slaughterhouse-Five" has endured, though, to become one of the most celebrated novels of the twentieth century. Although it depicts events and contains characters occurring in other Vonnegut novels, it is moving to read because it probably is the most self-descriptive of the author's experiences. It addresses issues close to Vonnegut's heart, regarding the purpose of life and how to find balance in a world full of destruction.

I was surprised to find out that the author had actually been at the scene of one of the greatest mass losses of life in the war. He had been captured with his infantry regiment by the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. He eventually landed in custody, with some other Americans, in a meat packing plant in Dresden. By chance, American and British bombers targeted Dresden in February 1945, dropping huge tonnage of explosive and incendiary bombs on a city swelled by refugees to twice its population of about six hundred thousand. Square miles of the center of the city were turned to cinders. I had read about the destruction of this city when I was younger, and knew many thousands of people died there. Numerous accounts showed a death count into the six figures; I think Vonnegut wrote that about 135,000 people perished in several days of bombing. More recent scholarship points to less than fifty thousand deaths. Regardless of the body count, the destruction of this city with no real military value was so horrific that no allied government went out of its way to include this incident in any discussion of the wartime value of air power. There has been speculation that it was implemented to revenge the German bombing of Coventry in England earlier in the war, but Winston Churchill never let himself be associated with it.

Vonnegut and his comrades found themselves among the few survivors in the heart of the German city after they left their underground shelter. They saw the evidence first hand of the ugly residue of masses of humans incinerated in firestorms, and felt the wrath of the local citizens for being enemy survivors, as they were forced to dig bodies out of rubble. He would be liberated by the Red Army three months later but would obviously never forget this experience.

"Slaughterhouse-Five" would, therefore, be Vonnegut's statement of his connection with this chapter in the war, as he mentions in his famous first sentence, in part, "All this happened, more or less .." He chose to forego writing a straight witness account of what he saw, because, how can words describe exactly what he felt among this carnage and destruction? What he produced instead was a work containing satire and gallows humor, against a backdrop of science fiction as young soldier Billy Pilgrim is captured at the Battle of the Bulge and finds himself imprisoned in the Slaughterhouse Number 5, in time to witness the complete shambles of what had been a city the day before. He becomes kidnapped by extraterrestrials who live their pasts and futures out of sequence. Billy becomes "unstuck in time" and lives through events in Belgium, Dresden, the post war decades, his marriage and his eventual death by murder, but not linearally. In true Vonnegut fashion, he interacts with characters that show up in other novels, including Kilgore Trout, the failed science fiction writer who only ever received one fan letter, and Eliot Rosewater, who wrote the fan letter to Trout.

The book is hilarious as well as downright strange in parts, but under the surface is Kurt Vonnegut's continuing questioning of why we live through the events of life and what can we do about it. The Tralfamadorians' philosophy is that there is no free will. Fate judges our destiny and humans can only affect what they think about what they want to do. Why do wars happen? Because they do, and being anti-war is futile. The Tralfamadore mantra repeated throughout the book is "so it goes." Vonnegut would denounce war, but he did wonder how much we, as a society, are really in control of our collective destiny.

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message 1: by Scott (new)

Scott Hey I have a question. Is this book explicit? Moreover, sexually explicit? Thanks


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