Having read so much and so eclectically, I found when I finally came to this post-war classic, I heard echoes of previous books I’d read. Our protagonist, Billy Pilgrim has an unexplained involuntary ability to flit through time to visit various stages of his life, echoing Henry’s time travelling in “A Time Traveller’s Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger. Then there is a beautiful passage, where Billy sees war backwards, an echo of Martin Amis’ “Time’s Arrow”, Billy imagines planes opening their hatches and sucking the fires out of the burning cities into metal canisters and taking the canisters back to the airfield where they are dismantled and their minerals restored to the earth. Billy reads largely unread science fiction writer Kilgore Trout, who has a book where a time traveller returns to the time of Jesus, to find Jesus working as a carpenter with his father (or should that be step father?) making crosses for the Romans. This echoes both “Behold the Man” by Michael Moorcock and “The Last Temptation of Christ” by Nikos Kazantzakis. All the books echoed, with the exception of Kazantzakis, were written after this classic SH5.
I find with many of these post war American “classics” the narrator in my head sounds the same, whether reading “Catcher in the Rye”, “On The Road” ,”Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” or “Catch 22”. Is this true for everyone or is it my own peculiar quirk?
There is a lot of death in the book, as one might expect from a witness of the infamous Dresden firebombing. So it goes. There is the widespread destruction of the baroque German city, turned into a moonscape by the bombing of February 13, 1945. There are also the individual often pointless deaths like Edgar Denby, an old high school teacher, caught with a teapot and shot for looting. It is clearly an anti war book even if it expresses the desire to stop war is as pointless as the idea of stopping glaciers, both being inevitable and unstoppable.
Billy Pilgrim is not the most charismatic protagonist, a naive and hesitant weakling caught up in the war, a bit of a fool like Prince Myushkin (Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot“) . He seems prepared to let what will happen, happen, he doesn’t struggle against the absurdity, merely acting as an observer. An observer showing in this disjointed narrative, the disjointed absurdity of war.
This is the first Vonnegut book, I’ve actually finished. 30 years ago in University we had “Jailbird” to read, which was also rather disjointed and being both ignorant and disinterested in American politics and not liking books we’d been told to read, I gave up on it. Maybe I should give it another go.
My rating 4 out of 5 so it goes.