I love Kurt Vonnegut. I don’t know how it could have taken me this long to realize it. If you’ve never read any of his books, you should take the time to make your next book one of his. I finished this one quite some time ago, but I realized I never wrote a review. Slaughterhouse-Five, subtitled The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death is described as “the ultimate anti-war novel.” Vonnegut was a soldier in the U.S. Army and was captured in the line of duty. He was held captive in the German city of Dresden in a slaughterhouse (#5). The Allies subsequently firebombed Dresden, and Vonnegut and the other soldiers in Slaughterhouse Five were some of the few survivors in the city. He and his fellow Ally soldiers were then forced to help clean up the bodies and rubble across the city.
In the first chapter of this book, Vonnegut describes a little bit about his life after the war and why it took him so long to write about such a horrific experience. Using true artistic style, in the rest of the book he chose to tell the tale of a fictional character, Billy Pilgrim, a soldier whose story overlaps with that of Vonnegut’s own. In fact, Vonnegut even makes a few brief appearances in the book.
Anyone looking for a book about war and battles, however, will be sorely disappointed. Most of this book is about the life of Billy Pilgrim both before and after the war. The twist is that Billy has become “unstuck in time.” That means that at random points in the story, Billy time-travels to various points in his own life. He has seen his own birth and death many times over. If that’s not strange enough for you, at one point in his life Billy is captured by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore and placed in a “zoo” of exotic species. He’s returned to Earth after some time, but it’s as though he never left. Fortunately, there’s a lot to be learned from the Tralfamadorians, and those scenes are actually some of my favorites. There’s a particular passage that sticks out in my mind:
The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.
When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in the particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “So it goes.” [Wikiquote]
While I’m not sure I fully caught on to the prolific “anti-war” theme, I can assure you that this book spoke volumes to me about life in general. It’s one of those books with plenty of quotable passages like the one above that make you stop and think. If you’ve never read it, I suggest you wander over to Amazon and grab a copy. It comes highly recommended.