Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Children's Crusade


"Eheu, fugaces laburuntur anni," - Horace

"Billy was having an adventure very common among people without power in time of war: He was trying to prove to a willfully deaf and blind enemy that he was interesting to hear and see. He kept silent until the lights went out at night, and then, when there had been a long silence containing nothing to echo, he said to Rumfoord, "I was in Dresden when it was bombed. I was a prisoner of war." - Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

This is one of my favorite Vonnegut novels. A satirical novel about World War II experiences and journeys through time of a soldier called Billy Pilgrim, it is widely regarded as among the most significant works of 20th century literatures, and is generally recognized as Vonnegut's most influential and popular work. In the story Billy survives capture by the Germans, the Dresden bombings, and the struggle for financial success only to be kidnapped in a flying saucer and taken to the planet Tralfamadore. Through the hero Billy Pilgrim, we see the central themes of Vonnegut’s humanism along with his satirical take on how disgusting it is when humans don’t use their (limited) free will to prevent simple atrocities. In it we explore fate, free will and the illogical nature of human beings. Protagonist Billy Pilgrim is unstuck in time, randomly experiencing the events of his life, with no idea of what part he will next visit — so, his life does not end with death; he re-lives his death, before its time, an experience often mingled with his other experiences.  
Billy Pilgrim says there is no free will, an assertion confirmed by a Tralfamadorian, who says, "I've visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe . . . Only on Earth is there any talk of free will." The story's central concept: most of humanity is insignificant; they do what they do, because they must.  A great example of how we use humor to deal with hardship, and the conflict between the way heroism is conveyed through stories for actions in situations that perhaps could have been avoided altogether.
“So then I understood. It was war that made her so angry. She didn’t want her babies or anybody else’s babies killed in wars. And she thought wars were partly encouraged by books and movies.”
What also impressed me was the way Vonnegut integrated symbolism, imagery and allegory throughout the novel.  For example Slaughterhouse-Five uses a lot of elements from the fictional part of the novel, and specifically from Billy's experiences on Tralfamadore, to structure the book as a whole. Not only do the stars in the Tralfamadorian novel appear throughout Slaughterhouse-Five, but the fact that the book is told out of chronological order fits the Tralfamadorian concept of time. 
Slaughterhouse-Five was nominated for a best-novel Nebula Award and for a best-novel Hugo Award, 1970. It lost both to The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin. While I would also rate it a notch below LeGuin's classic novel it is still very good, certainly the best Vonnegut that I have read.

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