Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Review: Slaughterhouse 5 (or The Children's Crusade) by Kurt Vonnegut

Book cover for Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut
I knew absolutely nothing about this book when I decided I wanted to read it. I was purposefully looking for a copy in Leeds Waterstones, and I still only had the vague notion that it was anti-World War Two. So, imagine my surprise when I discovered that Slaughterhouse 5 is actually, honest-to-God, about aliens and time-travel. And I thought Sneaky Vampires were bad...

Plot summary - Prisoner of war, optometrist, time-traveller - these are the life roles of Billy Pilgrim, hero of this miraculously moving, bitter and funny story of innocence faced with apocalypse. Slaughterhouse 5 is one of the world's great anti-war books. Centering on the infamous fire-bombing of Dresden in the Second World War, Billy Pilgrim's odyssey through time reflects the journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we are afraid to know.

(see any aliens in that summary? Huh. Me neither.)

This is one of those books that need to be read with an already basic understanding of the author's background. First off, Kurt Vonnegut really was present at the controversial bombing of Dresden (Germany) by Allied Forces in 1945, killing thousands of civilians and Prisoners of War. Slaughterhouse 5 was the building in which Vonnegut and his colleagues sheltered from the bombing. Knowing this somehow puts a different slant on the whole story.

The first and last chapters explain all this, but in a narrative way that fits perfectly into the story - that the author was actually there, the slow progress of actually writing the book and how it was given its subtitle. Upon visiting an old friend of his from the War, the friend's wife remarked how such a book should not be written as all men Vonnegut's age had just been child soldiers, fighting in a war that was not their own. Hence, 'the children's crusade.' That's one of the major themes of Slaughterhouse 5 - that the 'men' drafted in to fight for both sides of World War Two towards the end were either too young, too old or too injured.

This is doubly true in Billy Pilgrim's case. He's definitely young, but to me at least, he seems a little... off. Mentally ill perhaps. He has an odd gait, doesn't understand basic concepts and generally needs somebody to push him along from behind. That might just be my interpretation, but that's the idea I took from it. The point is, he shouldn't have been there, along with thousands of other people unsuited for conscription.

Slaughterhouse 5 quote image- 'Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.'
So, the aliens - because hey, I wasn't joking. The timeline flits about constantly, in a Time Traveller's Wife kind of way, and it does get a little confusing at times. The concept is that Billy was abducted by aliens (the Tralfamadorians) and exhibited in a zoo on their home planet. Eventually he starts to see time as they do - as if every moment of the past, present and future is happening all the time. Time doesn't progress; it doesn't need to if you can see every second of every day at once.  
I know it's quite pretentious, but I really want this image (right) as a tattoo. I've been wanting a literary tattoo for a long time, so I'm seriously considering this one, once my Lupus has cleared up a little. 

While I did enjoy Slaughterhouse 5, I didn't seem to really connect to it. Maybe it was because it was more absurd than I expected, or perhaps I just wasn't in the right frame of mind. Either way, it is worth a read. Just keep in mind that Kurt Vonnegut's statistics and viewpoints aren't all strictly correct - apparently the Nazis exaggerated the death toll as part of their propaganda schemes. The author states it was around 130,000, but recent investigations show it was actually more around 25,000. Not that that's not bad enough, mind you.

Read more about the bombing of Dresden in World War Two here.


  1. I keep meaning to get this out whenever I see it in the library, but just haven't quite got round to it. I knew it was a cult classic and anti-ww2 but that was it. I had no idea about the aliens and time-travel. Not that I have a problem with them in their right place, but I'll view it differently now. I'll just have to get this book and see what it's all about.

    1. Exactly! I like aliens and time travel, but I do like to know when they're coming!

  2. This is about ALIENS?! :-o

    I know that you've said the same thing but I really can't believe that I have known about this book's existence (and wanted to read it) for such a long time without ever having happened upon that fact! That just seems weird.

    Is it wrong that I want to read this even more now that I know that there's something weird going on? I obviously don't mean to imply that war and death aren't deserving enough of attention in their own right but a bit of weirdness never hurt a book. Unless the book in question is Life of Pi. Then it does hurt (or at least, it did when I read it years ago...).

    ANYway, what a perfect literary tattoo!

    1. YES! EXACTLY! I think this may turn out to be one of the most useful-to-other-people reviews I've ever written - 'Enlightening the world to literative aliens, one book at a time.' That's a blog subtitle, right there.

      That's what I thought though - it's been on my wishlist for so long and I never knew...

      Haha, not wrong at all. At least you'll know what you're going in to! :)

  3. Even though I had this book in my TBR list for a while, I actually picked it up after reading Universe Vs Alex Woods (I swear this book makes you want to read all the Vonnegut...) and ... so disappointing. I can't really pinpoint what didn't work there except that the whole thing just felt really fragmentary and yes the whole alien thing was pretty unexpected (I'm your regular sci-fi reader but this just didn't work for me either...)


Grab my Button

Booking in Heels

Booking In Heels Copyright 2008 Fashionholic Designed by Ipiet Templates Supported by Tadpole's Notez