Book Review: On Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five

slaughter-house-fiveSlaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut’s absurdist classic Slaughterhouse-Five introduces us to Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes unstuck in time after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. In a plot-scrambling display of virtuosity, we follow Pilgrim simultaneously through all phases of his life, concentrating on his (and Vonnegut’s) shattering experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden. (Goodreads)

Disclaimer: This is not, and never will be, a book review. I never really learned how to write one.

But this day calls for a celebration. For the first time in months I was finally able to pick up a book again. The last time I allowed myself to be completely and deeply moved by a novel was December of last year. Fitzgerald tugged at my heartstrings like a child would tug at the hem of her mother’s skirt. Persistent and full of force were Fitzgerald’s words, and how I blushed and flushed and burned to the color of rose as I waited for the novel to swallow me alive. The Great Gatsby caught me weak-willed and defenseless. Love in its most heroic and most heartbreaking form, magnified by characters so well-portrayed you almost wish they really exist in real life. Well that is really one hell of a literary masterpiece.

Last summer I managed to read a Murakami book. Perhaps out of boredom, or out of my unbounded duty to myself, or out of my unwritten pledge to read the printed word. But whatever. I finished the book in a week’s time but it came to me quite surprisingly trite and dry. I did like the book, like all the other Murakami books I have left in my bookshelf to catch dust. But one thing I did not like about Murakami was the flatulent familiarity a reader acquires over time by prolonged exposure to his writings. You simply get used to him. Like old inactive relationships, he just gets boring.

But whatever.

This July, actually just a few days ago, I came across this never-heard-before author by the name of Kurt Vonnegut. I honestly did not know what brought my scrambling literary feet to his strange unfamiliar books. Maybe Time, or Fate mostly, or a bunch of good luck, or a deadening desire to turn my world around and start all over again with a slate as clean and fresh as a newborn child. I had actually heard him before, had seen his name somewhere in a movie, so he was not totally new in the proper sense of the word. But I had never known before what Vonnegut has in store for thirsty soul-searching scumbags like me. In some odd ways I’d like to believe that every author has something to offer, if not to the whole world then at least to the reader who sits quietly by the window, waiting for the words to sprinkle its magic, waiting for the incantation.

So here’s the bewitchment that is Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. 

The novel is about a man named Billy Pilgrim who travels in time. He gets abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, who put him in a zoo with a porn actress named Montana Wildhack whom the aliens also kidnapped. Science fiction shit and all. Billy Pilgrim is a practicing optometrist. He has a wife named Valencia, whose father owned the school where Billy Pilgrim studied optometry. His wife dies in carbon monoxide poisoning. He has a daughter named Barbara and a son named Robert. Billy Pilgrim is a private in the Second World War. Throughout the novel we follow Billy Pilgrim in random points of his life, highlighting the gut-wrenching tale of American prisoners of war during the infamous fire-bombing of Dresden in 1945.

Dresden, with all the plight and the promise of this beautiful Earthen city, and how it all came crumbling down like a house of cards one dull day in February 1945.

To tell you the truth, I have never been a smart reader. I don’t have that instinctive facility so common and universal to the intelligent reader. People who knew me admire me for what they call my capacity to “devour books”. But do not be deceived. I simply go by the plot, no matter how complex and mixed-up the plot could be. It’s a reflex action. Like when you throw a piece of paper in the river it ebbs away with the flow of the water. I am that piece of paper, fading away in the novel like all engrossed readers do.

What I like about Slaughterhouse Five was the part when the Tralfamadorian aliens talked to Billy Pilgrim about time.

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.

I like the idea of Time as boundless, nameless, incalculable and unthinkable in all ways unknown to man. Which was why I also like the idea that it was the Tralfamadorian aliens who knew all about this and who were the ones to tell this to the Earthling Billy Pilgrim. Because in reality, we could never arrive at such a truth. We are so constructed to live with Time and in Time. We map our lives with it, we breathe in it. But to actually exist apart from Time would be preposterous and unimaginable, like existing in thin air.

I’m never fond of quantum theories. But there are days when I would just wish I could explain to myself that Time is non-existent, that I was, am and will be — all crammed up in this vehicular mass of flesh and bones called the human body. There are days when looking at the calendar brings a profound sense of longing. Longing for some extraterrestrial fourth-dimensional space where there is no time. It is almost unfair that we are imprisoned by a bunch of numbers ticking their time away, indifferent to our consent. It is cruel that we are born mortals while the gods at Mount Olympus has eternity to spare.

But is this just juvenile thinking, the denial of time? Or have I gone mad in my exhausted efforts to carry on in life? Have I completely accepted the idea that somewhere sometime in the vast lonely universe Tralfamadorian aliens exist, waiting to abduct humans and put them in a zoo, and tell us “Time is just an illusion.”

Maybe in some sense Slaughterhouse Five was my saving grace. Not only did it leaves the reader a thought-proving question on the subject and nature of Time but it also portrays so vividly the gruesome horror of the Second World War. The novel also touches upon delicate matters such as war and peace, human alienation, post-traumatic stress disorder, phony patriotism, the loss of sanity, the abandonment of ideals, the fractured faces of man’s most horrid invention of all: war.

The novel ended in a massive city-scale incineration. Some 135,000 innocent lives tucked under the rubble were lit with fire, sending smell of burnt flesh up in the air, as soot and ashes drifted like stars in the heavenly city that was Dresden.

I think about world wars, the color of crimson in the night sky, terrors that filled what silence was suppose to conquer, and I realize time is fluid.

All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist.

All of Dresden is still alive.


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