It's forty years since the novel that foistered fame onto Kurt Vonnegut (1922 - 2007) was published. He'd achieved critical acclaim in 1963 with Cat's Cradle, but it was Slaughterhouse-Five that brought popular success and a million-dollar multi-book contract. It remains Vonnegut's most popular work - certainly his best known, most read, and likely the one which introduces him to a majority of readers.
It relates the remarkable story of the most unremarkable myopic optometrist Billy Pilgrim, who plays a quite unremarkable role in the Second World War. Like Vonnegut himself, Pilgrim is taken prisoner, manages to survive the bombing of Dresden, and returns home to an incredibly unremarkable existence. Save for the fact that during the course of it Billy also manages to get himself abducted by aliens from a distant planet - an event that leaves him "unstuck in time."
Thus Billy flutters through his own life, fleeting from one moment to the next, almost simultaneously inhabiting past, present, and future. One moment he's in the cellar of a Dresden slaughterhouse, seeking shelter from the firestorm unleashed by bombers above, the next he's on display in an alien zoo, caged together with a salacious actress in the hope they'll mate. It's all quite a bit silly, and Vonnegut never pretends otherwise.
Though often categorised as a "black humourist," there's nothing particularly "black" about Vonnegut's attempts to make his fellow human beings laugh at the stark inevitabilities of change and death. Most often, laughter is the sole remedy available against the inevitable. As his stream of consciousness prose suggests, Vonnegut's a raconteur rather than a writer, closer in sentiment to classic storytellers of traditional folk or fairy tales.
Not that his stories are stylistically traditional: Slaughterhouse-Five was perhaps the first broadly popular novel to completely abandon traditional restrictions on narrative. At least as far as fixed spaces and time-lines are concerned. Yet it's as easy to read as a children's story. All the recurring themes and motifs are introduced in the first chapter, all the clues present, the whole point explained right there at the beginning.
While Vonnegut clearly attempted to address the lack of attention the bombing of Dresden received after the war, his main objective was to process the trauma inflicted by what he had personally witnessed. And while he managed to challenge the established view at the time - that the bombing had been necessary, that the only people killed were murderous Nazis - he also, far more importantly, attempted to introduce a device for dealing with loss and grief.
Though unlike his protagonist we're not "unstuck in time," Vonnegut argued that maybe it would be a good thing if we were. Listen. Instead of expending our emotions on births and deaths, on beginnings and ends, wouldn't it be better - Vonnegut seemed to say - if we simply accepted that everything - life, relationships, lunch - has a beginning and an end, and concentrated on what's between instead?
Despite this, Slaughterhouse-Five is surprisingly often interpreted as an affirmation of fatalism. Yet, Vonnegut's attempt to focus his readers' attention on life between its terminal points clearly sought to make them consider what can be altered - not accepted as inevitable. Even the aliens who abduct Billy the myopic optometrist appear to be a parody of fatalists and their ilk, equally myopic in their unwavering determinist outlook.
My father died many years ago now - of natural causes. So it goes. He was a sweet man. He was a gun nut, too. He left me his guns. They rust.
Vonnegut had tried to describe his experiences in Dresden ever since the war ended. Three different drafts of the novel, now held at the University of Indiana, bear witness to his protracted struggle - as do frequent mentions of the bombing in many of his short stories. Though Vonnegut seemingly found release in the unusual amalgam of science fiction and personal confession finally published in 1969, the bombing of Dresden receives passing mention in at least six of his other novels.
One of the most blunt and stark attempts to describe what he'd survived was likely one of the first - a letter written to his family in 1945 from a POW Repatriation Camp in France. Though first published in the posthumous 2008 collection of writings, Armageddon in Retrospect, it could easily serve as a preface to Slaughterhouse-Five. In fact, it could easily serve as a preface to Vonnegut's entire career as a writer.
Slaughterhouse-Five is also Vonnegut's most controversial work. Frequently banned from American literature classes, removed from school libraries, it regularly makes the top 60 of the American Library Association's list of most frequently challenged titles. Not that its pages contain anything particularly challenging. Unless one happens to be a supercilious bigot, militaristic jingoist, religious zealot, reactionary moralist, or simply dumb - in which case the novel likely presents an insurmountable challenge.
For the sufficiently elucidated reader its sole offense is relying on David Irving's The Destruction of Dresden as a source. Irving's book was an international bestseller in the 1960s, and one of the first to question the morality of the indiscriminate bombing of German cities. It's easy to comprehend why Vonnegut would rely on it to provide his account with what was then considered reliable facts and figures.
That Irving, virtually unknown outside of Britain at the time, would become a notorious historical revisionist, a convicted racist and anti-Semite, incarcerated for Holocaust denial, was something neither Vonnegut nor anyone else could've foreseen. However, the inclusion of Irving's findings contribute to the controversy; they're crucial to whether the bombing of Dresden should be considered a crime or the result of war's general melee.
As Vonnegut's myopic protagonist is told in the novel at the very beginning of his career in optometry "frames are where the money is," and the framing of historical events such as the bombing of Dresden are lessons in how atrocious events past can be smoothly rationalised and adjusted to prepare ground for future "inevitable" and "necessary" actions. Framing is everything. So it goes.
Ultimately, Slaughterhouse-Five is a work of fiction not entirely concerned with facts and figures. It's readers shouldn't be overtly concerned with them either. Does it really matter how many people were burned alive in Dresden a mere twelve weeks before the war ended? Would it seem less atrocious if, say, only a handful of people had been roasted? Anyone who answers with a resounding yes ought to have their head examined. Professionally.
Listen. The debate over numbers is a ruse. Many, many people were killed; many, many of their cultural artifacts were destroyed forever. For reasons increasingly difficult to justify as time marches on. That's all anyone needs to remember in order to avoid a repeat. That's all Vonnegut wanted to say.