Monday, April 03, 2006

Slaughterhouse - 5

How can you stop reading a book that starts like this? “All this happened, more or less. The war parts anyway are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot dead in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his.”

These are the opening lines of the novel “Slaughter House 5” by Kurt Vonnegut. This is the second time I am writing about Vonnegut. The first one was a translation of his introduction to his short story collection “Bagombo Snuff Box”.

The first time, I heard about him, was through the New York Times article “God bless you Mr.Vonnegut”. Well written by the author this article kindled my interest towards Vonnegut. From that article I could “feel” that Vonnegut has similarities with some of the writers I enjoy a lot. As a strange coincidence my favorite R.K.Narayan’s patron Graham Greene acclaimed Vonnegut as “one of the best living American writers”.

Vonnegut was known as a science fiction writer when he started writing. But his stories intertwine the very quality of reality-based novels with that of Sci-fi. His later stories deviated from his sci-fi genre and became literary reflections of real life. Though it seems to be easy to categorize Vonnegut in one genre of writing, one will be misled by his “deceptively simple” stories which deal with various facets of literature.

Slaughter house 5”’s initial chapters seem to be very much auto-biographical. A writer wants to write a novel based on his experiences in the WW-II. He promises his anguished friend’s wife that the book would definitely not be supportive to the system of wars, even if not against it. The story changes its course with the introduction of Billy, the central character, who by mere chance, happened to participate in the war.

Billy, a neurotic clown, happened to acquire time traveling skills with the help of some alien creatures. According to those aliens, there is nothing called time. One can live, re-live whatever moments passed-by, whatever moments about-to-come. There is nothing called death. The story extrapolates this principle with the screenplay. The scenes constantly juggle between years, events, world war, mental asylum and time travel. This technique was later popularized as post modernism in literature. Though Vonnegut was one of those fore-runners who practiced and inspired others in “post modernism” he was never given due credit for this. Though the screen play is so complex, one never feels so. Vonnegut’s skillful black humor glues the reader to the book.

To heck with all those “isms”, one can read without bothering much of any of these and still can enjoy Vonnegut’s work. To read and understand Vonnegut one requires no great intellect. His stories are so simple and straight forward, they feel like a breezy walk after a Kafka or a Dostoevsky.

The book extensively deals with the treatment of Prisoners of War in WW-II by Germans and the behavior of captured soldiers. American soldiers behaved very shabbily in the war – they were not given proper war materials (almost near the end of the war), but the English soldiers acted in a very sophisticated manner. Vonnegut analyzes the reasons for this attitude difference in detail.

“Roland Weary and the scouts were safe in a ditch, and Weary growled at Billy, “Get out of the road, you dumb motherf*cker”. The last word was still a novelty in the speech of white people in 1944. It was fresh and astonishing to Billy, who had never f*cked anybody – and it did its job. It woke him up and got him off the road.”

There are some pit falls too in this book. How Billy got this time traveling skill is not conveyed clearly. Since he is portrayed as a neurotic from the beginning, at some places the reader would be wondering whether the time travels are simple hallucinations. Similarly the Trafalgamore (the alien planet) creatures do time warping in which case Billy can’t be present in the same moment in two different places as mentioned in few places of this book. Anyhow these are some logical mistakes which can be caught only by a nit-picker. Over all, the book is a good one. Indeed this book was adapted to film medium and won an academy award for best sci-fi film of the year 1972.

An addendum:

Being a surviving POW himself, Vonnegut’s some of the short stories give a very good glimpse of the post war status of WW soldiers. In one story “Memento” a survived soldier tries to sell a watch he acquired in Germany, which contains some inscriptions unknown to him. But the pawnbroker keeps persuading the soldier for a lower price, while he tries to decipher what was written in German in the watch. Raged by the broker’s behavior and sentimentalized by the world war memories, the soldier changes his mind about selling the watch and takes it away with him. Few moments after he left, the errand boy brings the translation from a German professor.

It reads:
“To General Henz Guderian, Chief of the Army General Staff, who cannot rest until the last enemy soldier is driven from the sacred soil of the Third German Reich. ADOLF HITLER.”

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