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I have read one Kurt Vonnegut book before – it is a collection of essays called ‘A Man Without a Country’. I have wanted to read one of his novels since then and so when the book club I am a part of, decided that the book for March would be ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’, I was quite excited. I picked it up a few days back and finished reading it in a day, which rarely happens with me. Here is what I think.

 Slaughterhouse Five By Kurt Vonnegut

‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ starts with an unnamed narrator, who looks suspiciously like the author, saying that he wants to write a book about the Dresden firebombing during the Second World War. Then this narrator starts describing what is there in this book. This book is about Billy Pilgrim who goes to Europe during the Second World War as the assistant of the chaplain of the army. But before he could do anything his whole army unit is killed and he doesn’t even have proper army clothes and shoes. He and three other soldiers get together and try to walk away from the enemy territory and try to stay out of trouble. While we are told this story, we are also told many other stories of Billy Pilgrim. Billy Pilgrim moves back and forth across time during the narration of this story – we learn about his mother and is girlfriend who he later marries, we learn the fact that he studies optometry and becomes a rich man later in life, we also learn that he is in a plane when it crashes and miraculously survives when everyone else dies. When he is recovering in a hospital once, he discovers his neighbour reading a science fiction book. This book is written by a writer called Kilgore Trout and Billy Pilgrim get addicted to it. It looks like Trout hasn’t sold many books, but Billy Pilgrim’s hospital neighbour is a big fan of him and soon Billy becomes a big fan of him too. Interestingly, after this Billy also gets kidnapped by aliens who take him to their planet and put him inside a transparent enclosure like in a zoo and alien spectators come to watch him. Billy learns a lot of things from the aliens, like the fourth dimension is very important, a person never dies but is always alive and the death of the person is just an event in spacetime and a person keeps moving back and forth across time forever, wars and violence keep happening and are outside the control of humans (or other living beings) and the only thing one can do is enjoy the beautiful moments which happen randomly. While reading the book, at some point, I wasn’t sure whether Billy Pilgrim was actually travelling across time or whether he actually met aliens or whether he was dreaming about time travel and aliens after reading Kilgore Trout’s novels. This point is never explicitly clarified. The Dresden bombing is also not explicitly described in the book and the story skirts around it describing Billy Pilgrim’s life before and after the bombing. The book continues in this vein showing us Billy’s life at different points of time when he is travelling back and forth across time. Towards the end the narrator comes back into the story and concludes the book.

 

I found ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ quite interesting. Vonnegut experiments with the structure of the novel – there is the initial frame which has a narrator talking about a book that he wants to write, which makes us think that it is really the author who has jumped into the book and then there is the story of Billy Pilgrim which is a book within a book and who we suspect is also the narrator with a different name (and hence it is also the author). Billy Pilgrim’s time travel is quite interesting and Vonnegut uses this device to explore science (spacetime, fourth dimension, time travel, different views of reality) and also to comment on life, war and the human condition. One of the statistics which is given in the book is that more people died during the Dresden firebombing when compared to the bombing in Hiroshima. The book also says that the Dresden firebombing is not mentioned in any of the American history books of that time. (Is that why some people are still calling for the ban of ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’?) The narrator says at the beginning of the book that the book he is writing is an anti-war book. Though the book has anti-war sentiments, the book also says through the voice of one of the aliens that war is unavoidable and the best thing that one can do is enjoy the beautiful moments in one’s life. Two of my favourite minor characters in the story were a German doctor couple who meet Billy Pilgrim when he is sitting in a cart waiting for his army mates to come back. The horse is not doing well as Billy and his friends have treated the horse like a car and have flogged it. The doctor couple chide him for treating a horse like that and try to help the horse. There is also a blind German innkeeper who takes in American soldiers after the bombing and offers them hospitality. The way the book describes humans as warm and caring, irrespective of which side of the line they are in, in a war, is quite beautiful. Vonnegut’s trademark humour is on display throughout the book and the book is a fast-paced read. I really enjoyed reading it.

 

One of my book club mates borrowed my copy of the book and so there are no quotes today.

 

If you like humorous war novels where the story is told from a unique perspective with science fiction and time travel thrown in, you will love ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’.

 

Have you read ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’? What do you think about it?

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I first saw Kurt Vonnegut’s books in a used-bookstore when I was in high school or in college. His name sounded too serious, the books’ title also looked serious and so I wasn’t really interested in picking any of them. A few years back one of my dear friends, told me that Vonnegut was one of his favourite authors and I thought that I should read a Vonnegut book soon. Then fellow book blogger Emily recommended highly some of Vonnegut’s books (Thanks Emily!), and I moved them to the top of my ‘TBR’ list. Then I read a review of Vonnegut’s book ‘God Bless You, Dr.Kevorkian’ in Ben’s blog, My Deck of Cards (you can find the review here) and I was wondering why I haven’t read a Vonnegut book yet. So I thought I will redeem myself and got a Vonnegut book when I was on a book-buying-binge last week and read it. It was ‘A Man without a Country’. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is the review.

Summary of the book

I am giving below a summary of the book as given on its back cover.

This is vintage Vonnegut – hilariously funny and razor-sharp as he fixes his gaze on art, politics, himself and the condition of the soul of America today. Written over the last five years in the form of a loose memoir, A Man without a Country is an intimate and tender communication to us all, sometimes despairing, always searching and ultimately wise and compassionate.


What I think

I don’t know what to say about ‘A Man without a Country’ beyond the fact that it was a slim book, it was a fast-paced read, I smiled at some of the things that Vonnegut said and laughed at others, and some of the passages made me think a bit. My original impression that Vonnegut writes seriously was wrong – he writes with a lot of humour but addresses serious issues. In some places, I couldn’t stop laughing, even when Vonnegut was discussing a serious topic. In many places Vonnegut pokes fun at the Washington establishment during George W.Bush’s time and he also touches on global warming and environmental issues, on Luddites, on the pleasures of snail mail when compared to email, about his love for music, about German Americans during the nineteenth century, about women and extended families and many other interesting topics. He even gives a lesson on creative writing, which is fun to read. There are twelve chapters in the book and all of them are reasonably independent and can be read on a standalone basis.

I also discovered some interesting facts through the book (which I didn’t know before), like :

  • “Before we attacked Iraq, the majestic New York Times guaranteed that there were weapons of mass destruction there”.
(Comment : I didn’t know that that the NYT stuck its neck out and made this prediction. Sad! Whoever wrote that, must have felt like an idiot when things transpired the way they did.)
  • “More than a decade before his Gettysburg Address, back in 1849, when Lincoln was only a Congressman, he was heartbroken and humiliated by our war on Mexico, which had never attacked us…Do you know we actually captured Mexico City during the Mexican War?…What made Mexico so evil back in the 1840s, well before our Civil War, is that slavery was illegal there. Remember the Alamo? With that war we were making California our own, and a lot of other people and properties, and doing it as though butchering Mexican soldiers who were only defending their homeland against invaders wasn’t murder. What other stuff besides California? Well, Texas, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and part of New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming.”
(Comment : I found this interesting, because I thought that American interventionism in other countries’ affairs started only after the Second World War with the beginning of the Cold War. I will have to read up on nineteenth century history now.)
  • “The Chinese also gave us, via Marco Polo, pasta and the formula for gunpowder.”
(Comment : I was surprised by this, because I thought Italian Pasta and Chinese Noodles were different and they had evolved in parallel. Now I am surprised that Marco Polo’s visit carried so much of culinary significance! In China, pasta is called ‘Italian Noodles’ in Chinese, and I assumed that it was just a convenient way to refer to it. Now it looks like there is a deeper meaning to it.)

Excerpts

I am giving below some of my favourite passages from the book.

Science and Literature

Critics feel that a person cannot be a serious artist and also have had a technical education, which I had. I know that customarily English departments in universities, without knowing what they’re doing, teach dread of the engineering department, the physics department, and the chemistry department. And this fear, I think, is carried over into criticism. Most of our critics are products of English departments and are very suspicious of anyone who takes an interest in technology. So, anyway, I was a chemistry major, but I’m always winding up as a teacher in English departments, so I’ve brought scientific thinking to literature. There’s been very little gratitude for this.

The Semicolon

Here is a lesson in creative writing.
First rule : Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.

Art as pain and pleasure

If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.

On extended families

A few Americans, but very few, still have extended families. The Navahos. The Kennedys.
I met a man in Nigeria one time, an Ibo who had six hundred relatives he knew quite well. His wife had just had a baby, the best possible news in any extended family.
They were going to take it to meet all its relatives, Ibos of all ages and sizes and shapes. It would even meet other babies, cousins not much older than it was. Everybody who was big enough and steady enough was going to get to hold it, cuddle it, gurgle to it, and say how pretty or how handsome it was.
Wouldn’t you have loved to be that baby?
I sure wish I could wave a wand, and give every one of you an extended family, make you an Ibo or a Navaho – or a Kennedy.
Now, you take George and Laura Bush, who imagine themselves as a brave, clean-cut little couple. They are surrounded by an enormous extended family, what we should all have – I mean judges, senators, newspaper editors, lawyers, bankers. They are not alone. That they are members of an extended family is one reason they are so comfortable. And I would really, over the long run, hope America would find some way to provide all of our citizens with extended families – a large group of people they could call on for help.

(Comment : I think people with extended families, yearn for privacy and for individual freedom, while people with nuclear families want more friends and support. Which one is better is a never-ending question. As my Chinese teacher said – if we want to gain something, we have to give-up something.)

On being a Luddite

I have been called a Luddite.
I welcome it.
Do you know what a Luddite is? A person who hates newfangled contraptions. Ned Ludd was a textile worker in England at around the start of the nineteenth century who busted up a lot of new contraptions – mechanical looms that were going to put him out of work, that were going to make it impossible for him with his particular skills to feed, clothe, and shelter his family. In 1813 the British government executed by hanging seventeen men for “machine breaking”, as it was called, a capital crime.
Today we have contraptions like nuclear submarines armed with Poseidon missiles that have H-bombs in their warheads. And we have contraptions like computers that cheat you out of becoming. Bill Gates says, “Wait till you can see what your computer can become.” But it’s you who should be doing the becoming, not the damn fool computer. What you can become is the miracle you were born to be through the work that you do.
Progress has beat the heck out of me. It took away from me what a loom must have been to Ned Ludd two hundred years ago. I mean a typewriter. There is no longer such a thing anywhere.

(Comment : Every time I read the first line of this passage, I can’t resist laughing aloud 🙂 When I offered to teach my dad how to use computers, he looked at the ‘contraption’ and then said that he was not interested. Now, when I look at some of the young people around and the way they use their mobile phones and computers, I think I am also on my way to becoming a Luddite!)

Bernard Shaw on the planet

That night I got a call from my friend, the out-of-print-science-fiction writer Kilgore Trout. He asked me, “Did you watch the State of the Union address?”
“Yes, and it certainly helped to remember what the great British socialist playwright George Bernard Shaw said about this planet.”
“Which was?”
“He said, ‘I don’t know if there are men on the moon, but if there are, they must be using the earth as their lunatic asylum.’ And he wasn’t talking about the germs or the elephants. He meant we the people.”

The Joys and Sorrows of Guessing

Human beings have had to guess about almost everything for the past million years or so. The leading characters in our history books have been our most enthralling, and sometimes our most terrifying, guessers.
May I name two of them?
Aristotle and Hitler.
One good guesser and one bad one.
And the masses of humanity through the ages, feeling inadequately educated just like we do now, and rightly so, have had little choice but to believe this guesses or that one.
Russians who didn’t think much of the guesses of Ivan the Terrible, for example, were likely to have their hats nailed to their heads.
We must acknowledge that persuasive guessers, even Ivan the Terrible, now a hero in the Soviet Union, have sometimes given us the courage to endure extraordinary ordeals which we had no way of understanding. Crop failures, plagues, eruptions of volcanoes, babies being born dead – the guessers often gave us the illusion that bad luck and good luck were understandable and could somehow be dealt with intelligently and effectively. Without that illusion, we all might have surrendered long ago.
But the guessers, in fact, knew no more than the common people and sometimes less, even when, or especially when, they gave us the illusion that we were in control of our destinies.
Persuasive guessing has been at the core of leadership for so long, for all of human experience so far, that it is wholly unsurprising that most of the leaders of this planet, in spite of all the information that is suddenly ours, want the guessing to go on. It is now their turn to guess and guess and be listened to. Some of the loudest, most proudly ignorant guessing in the world is going on in Washington today. Our leaders are sick of all the solid information that has been dumped on humanity by research and scholarship and investigative reporting. They think that the whole country is sick of it, and they could be right. It isn’t the gold standard that they want to put us back on. They want something even more basic. They want to put us back on the snake-oil standard.
Loaded pistols are good for everyone except inmates in prisons or lunatic asylums.
That’s correct.
Millions spent on public health are inflationary.
That’s correct.
Billions spent on weapons will bring inflation down.
That’s correct.
Dictatorships to the right are much closer to American ideals than dictatorships to the left.
That’s correct.
The more hydrogen bomb warheads we have, all set to go off at a moment’s notice, the safer humanity is and the better off the world will be that our grandchildren will inherit.
That’s correct.
Industrial wastes, and especially those that are radioactive, hardly ever hurt anybody, so everybody should shut up about them.
That’s correct.
Industries should be allowed to do whatever they want to do : Bribe, wreck the environment just a little, fix prices, screw dumb customers, put a stop to the competition, and raid the Treasury when they go broke.
That’s correct.
That’s free enterprise.
And that’s correct.
The poor have done something very wrong or they wouldn’t be poor, so their children should pay the consequences.
That’s correct.
The United States of America cannot be expected to look after its own people.
That’s correct.
The free market will do that.
That’s correct.
The free market is an automatic system of justice.
That’s correct.
I’m kidding.
And if you actually are an educated, thinking person, you will not be welcome in Washington, D.C. I know a couple of bright seventh graders who would not be welcome in Washington, D.C. Do you remember those doctors a few months back who got together and announced that it was a simple, clear medical fact that we could not survive even a moderate attack by hydrogen bombs? They are not welcome in Washington, D.C.
Even if we fired the first salvo of hydrogen weapons and the enemy never fired back, the poisons released would probably kill the whole planet by and by.
What is the response in Washington? They guess otherwise. What good is an education? The boisterous guessers are still in charge – the haters of information. And the guessers are almost all highly educated people. Think of that. They have had to throw away their educations, even Harvard and Yale educations.
If they didn’t do that, there is no way their uninhibited guessing could go on and on and on. Please, don’t you do that. But if you make use of the vast fund of knowledge now available to educated persons, you are going to be lonesome as hell. The guessers outnumber you – and now I have to guess – about ten to one.

(Comment : I couldn’t stop laughing when I read this passage. It also made me think. Though things might have changed a bit now, it is scary to think that people in responsible positions resort to guessing most of the time, to make important decisions).

Final Thoughts

I enjoyed reading ‘A Man without a Country’. I loved Kurt Vonnegut’s humour and the way he discusses difficult and serious issues with humour. In many places I felt that Vonnegut’s made me laugh despite seeming to not try at all (he says otherwise though, in one of the chapters in the book). If you haven’t read Kurt Vonnegut before, or if you haven’t read this book, you should try it. It is wonderful. I am going to read more Kurt Vonnegut books now – I will probably try reading ‘Cat’s Cradle’ or ‘Mother Night’ or ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ soon.

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