Kurt Vonnegut, the late American science fiction writer, served in the U.S army in World War II, was captured and imprisoned by the German army in Dresden, and therefore witnessed the fire-bombing of that city by the Allies in February 1945. Slaughterhouse 5 is the book he felt compelled to write about this massacre, being turned as he said into a figurative “pillar of salt” in its aftermath. It is also his rejection of war of any kind in its entirety, and should be considered a classic “anti-war” book, as well as a testimony to the bombing of civilian innocents in Dresden.
Despite the subject matter, this is written in his usual humorous and slightly anarchic style, with a time-travelling plot device thrown in for good measure. As mentioned there is humour here, but it is usually sad humour – jaded laughter at the workings of the world, almost. The plot revolves around the semi-autobiographical character Billy Pilgrim, a one-time wet-nosed young kid thrown into the cauldron of WW II’s European killing fields. Billy is experiencing time-travel phenomenon’s, and is the sometimes “guest” of the Tralfamadorians, an alien race. Despite the novel jumping between various time periods, it does not lose any plot consistency or coherency, and in fact it all comes together brilliantly at the end.
Kurt seems very cynical in this book, particularly regarding the futility and cruelty of war, but also about life in general. The character of Mary O’Hare, to whom the book is dedicated, has an excellent cameo, chastising Billy and other veterans for pretending to be tough hard-asses about their time spent in the war, and therefore glorifying it, despite the reality being that they were “babies” throughout it. He agrees to call his war memoirs “The Children’s Crusade” in acceptance of her point.
He employs a very effective and subtle literary device throughout the novel, which assumes a haunting quality by the novel’s end. It it pure genius, and I notice D.B.C Pierre does something similar in Lights Out in Wonderland. This is Billy’s use of the phrase “So it goes”. This utterance is Billy’s response to everything of note that happens in life, such as a friend dying – “So it goes”. Birds still sing after a massacre – “So it goes”. This becomes heart-breaking as the novel approaches its climax, for example the harmless and helpful English soldier shot for “stealing” a tea-pot, when he had seemingly survived the war – “So it goes”. Or “Maori Billy” dying of the dry-heaves after emerging from the corpse mines in Dresden – “So it goes”.
The descriptions here of the effects and deaths in the Dresden fire-bombing are tragic in the extreme, and deserve to be read. They will sadden and shock you, and the sense of injustice of it all will swamp you, especially when you realize that the massive fire-bombing committed by the Allies was against a civilian city of no military significance what-so-ever. It was a Hiroshima-style show of force and vengeance on a defenseless populace. But, so it goes. Particularly chilling to me was the burning alive of the teenage girls who were bathing, and their screams – so it goes. Also, the corpse mines I mentioned above, and just the sheer number of people killed, and in such a horrible way.
I suspect this novel was somewhat cathartic for Kurt Vonnegut, and indeed he alludes to the fact that he felt compelled to write about what happened. Perhaps he found some peace after doing so, as in various places throughout the book the prayer (Kurt was an atheist) “God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference” appears. Billy (Kurt) finally realises that he “could not change the past, the present and the future”, and this gives him a modicum of peace. It seems that Kurt (Billy) also had the courage and wisdom to do what he could about Dresden – he wrote this amazing testimony.