11 November 2022 was the centenary of the birth of one of my favourite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, in Indianapolis, Indiana, who wrote wryly satirical novels that frequently used postmodern techniques as well as elements of fantasy and science fiction to highlight the horrors and ironies.
My favourite Vonnegut novel is his 1969 Slaughterhouse-Five with the underlying philosophy that existence is capricious and senseless. This fictional account almost perfectly mirrors Vonnegut’s real experience in the war. In WWII, Vonnegut was imprisoned in Dresden, was beaten, and made a prisoner in Schlachthof Fünf or Slaughterhouse Five, a real slaughterhouse in Dresden.
As a witness and victim of the horrors of the fire-bombing of Dresden, Vonnegut would argue he has permission to take a satirical literary position and use irony and humour towards these events as well as mocking social conventions as a means to try to understand the utter absurdity of such violent actions of humans against other humans.
On the nights of 13-14 February 1944, the city of Dresden, Germany was subjected to one of the worst air attacks in the history of humanity. By the end of the bombing 135,000 to 250,000 people had been killed as a result of the fire-storms created by the combined forces of the United States and the United Kingdom screaming down the streets of Dresden and howling between the city buildings. Dresden was different than Berlin or many of the other German cities which were attacked during World War II because it was never fortified or used for strategic purposes and, therefore, was not considered a military target.
The reason Vonnegut’s satire is so popular and works so well is because he had personal ties to all the elements that he lambasted in his works. Vonnegut’s experience as a soldier in WWII during the firebombing of Dresden corrupted his mind and enabled him to express the chaotic reality of war, violence, obsession, sex and government in a raw and personal manner.
Slaughterhouse-Five follows a non-linear time progression to represent the anguish of the human mind as a result of trauma. The main character, Billy Pilgrim, becomes “unstuck in time,” when his mental state takes a drastic turn after witnessing the bombing of Dresden during World War II. In the novel, Kurt Vonnegut uses the fantastical notion of time travel to portray the negative effects on the soldiers who fight in wars.
Satirists such as Kurt Vonnegut use their creative work to reveal the comic elements of an absurd world and incite a change in society. In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut steps back from society and sees the absurd circus the world has become.
Slaughterhouse-Five depicts a profoundly absurd and distinctly postmodern world. It is an account of Billy Pilgrim’s capture and incarceration by the Germans during the last years of World War II, and scattered throughout the narrative are episodes from Billy’s life both before and after the war, and from his travels to the planet Tralfamadore (Trawl-fahm-uh-door). The novel tells of the bombing of Dresden in World War II, and refers to the Battle of the Bulge, the Vietnam War, and the civil rights protests in American cities during the 1960s.
Slaughterhouse-Five is written in the third-person omniscient point of view with interruptions from a first-person narrator who appears to be the author, Kurt Vonnegut.
The language of Slaughterhouse-Five is straightforward, so it’s easy to understand what’s happening in each of the sections. But with all the time jumping, alien abduction, and heavy-duty philosophy, it can be tough to work out how the sections go together.
His New York Times obituary in 2007 declared Vonnegut the “novelist who caught the imagination of his age”. Norman Mailer called Vonnegut “our own Mark Twain”, a comparison many have made, and praised him as “a marvellous writer with a style that remained undeniably and imperturbably his own”.
Due to its use of obscene language, depictions of sexual acts, lack of patriotism, and mentions of homosexuality, the novel has undergone at least eighteen banning attempts in public school systems and libraries in the United States.
Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five is a desperate, painfully honest attempt to confront the monstrous crimes of the twentieth century.
Slaughterhouse Five is one of the most enduring anti-war novels of all time.