Title: Slaughterhouse 5
Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Date Of Version Reviewed: 2007
Publisher: The Independant
What the book is about…
Slaughterhouse 5 introduces the reader to Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes unstuck in a time after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. In a plot-scrambling display of virtuosity, we follow Pilgrim simultaneously through all phases of his life, with a focus on his shattering experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden.
Vonnegut constructs a novel that is incredibly simple in its reading but with a complexity that is truly something to behold. The power in the novel comes from Vonnegut’s ability to make characters lack character; very much like his own experiences of war in the 1900s, the only way to survive was to become one of a number – a number of souls wandering the earth in a desperate hope that the war will end. This is coupled by the questions which the author explores around the suffering and effects of blindly destroying another civilisation in the name of war. The novel boasts wit and humour, interspersed with humanity and morality into one of the great books ever written. In fact the ease of reading combined with the way in which Vonnegut creates the world in which the POWs live make this book one of the top books ever.
We meet Billy Pilgrim who, on the surface, is a pathetic should – dragged into war but beginning to despair as he tries to escape the torment and suffering. His pleas for the other POWs to leave him be resonate with the true feeling of those drafted to war against their will. Billy’s relationships with his comrades are superficial and one can imagine this being exactly what it was like for Vonnegut during his lifetime in the army. The attitudes between the Englishmen and the Americans is humorous and shows a different, lighter side of being a POW. For example, a theatre production in the centre of the camp and the distain and compassion of the Englishmen against the less than perfect American counterparts.
The style is simple but masterful, jumping between time and place along a journey that we take alongside the protagonist. Pilgrim’s belief in being abducted by aliens makes the reader half believe that it actually happened to him – something you could gain from a delusional fellow who is convinced he has been probed in outer space. His relationship with his daughter – in his older years – who is sympathetic but burnt out from his embarrassing proclamations, is also beautifully portrayed in the short pieces in which they both appear. I personally appreciated the short, snappy paragraphs and it didn’t take long before I was putting the book aside with that rare “that was bloody brilliant!”
Final Thought: Genius. I do not believe there is anything such as a perfect book but if I had to pick one that is as close as possible this would be it. It is short, simple but powerful with rich insights into the life of a POW and the road to recovery from such a terrible existence. I never saw myself as a fan of the war genre. That said, this is not a war book per se but a book of human spirit and the damage of war to the human race. Go read this now!