Slaughterhouse Five: or The Children’s Crusade by Kurt Vonnegut
Review by Amy Licciardello.
It’s hard to know where to begin with Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. The novel blurs genre: historical fiction, autobiography and science fiction twist together and form something entirely unique to Vonnegut. The narrative itself has no linear structure, no heroes or villains, no suspense, conflict or climax. It consists, instead, of a jumble of moments that are harsh and absurd and tragic all at once, centring on the Allied firebombing of the civilian city of Dresden, Germany during World War II.
Billy Pilgrim, dull and passive, has just started his first semester of optometry school when he is enlisted as a valet to an army chaplain in World War Two. His first experience of the war is the infamous Battle of the Bulge, which he survives without a weapon or helmet, dazed and wandering aimlessly after other survivors until captured by German soldiers, who are just as pitiful and unsuited to war as he is.
He is sent to Dresden with a hundred other Americans to a prisoner of war camp in Dresden, held in the disused Schlachthaus Fünf, or Slaughterhouse Five. This is also the first moment he comes unstuck in time. He sees his entire life in a convoluted mess of moments before settling in his first swimming lesson with his father, where he sinks to the bottom of the pool and resents being rescued.
The novel unfolds in these clusters of life, skipping from the Dresden firebombing in World War II to his daughter’s wedding night, to his abduction by an alien species, the Tralfamadorians. He is paraded as a zoo exhibit alongside a famous Hollywood actress by these strange aliens, who look like plungers with a hand on top holding an eye. The Tralfamadorians can see in all four dimensions, including time. This means that everything that has ever happened, and everything that will ever happen, occurs simultaneously and perpetually. Their omniscience enables them to focus on whatever moment they wish, stripping death of its sorrow and finality, and giving them a philosophy of extreme fatalism.
Much of the book is tinged with a painful authenticity; Vonnegut himself was a veteran of World War II and present for the firebombing of Dresden. He occasionally appears in the novel as a minor, anonymous character, and has written the first and last chapters in first person. The novel effortlessly mixes parable and reality with the same starkness.
In the first chapter, Vonnegut confesses he has failed in his task to write a book about Dresden. He believes there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. And indeed, the firebombing of Dresden is not described at depth in the novel: what is there to say about such pointless carnage? The aftermath is rendered with bitter clarity and irony; after the senseless murder of thousands of people, one of Billy’s comrades takes a teapot from the wreckage and is tried and shot for plundering.
Slaughterhouse Five, at its core, is a plea against the machine of war. The novel’s subtitle, The Children’s Crusade, is the author’s reminder that wars are fought, not by strapping soldiers consumed with patriotism and moral conviction, but by ill-trained, ill-equipped children like Billy Pilgrim.
Amy Licciardello is a passionate reader who loves to discuss books
with absolutely anyone at CityLibraries Townsville.