I have always seen Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut as one of those modern, rather brutal classics which I ought to have read. I connect it in my mind (for no real reason that I can ascertain) with Catch-22 and A Clockwork Orange. I have read both those books and I review the latter here. I enjoyed these other titles but they were very much the type of books that can be admired rather than loved – Slaughterhouse-Five is another of the same type and written in much the same era (Catch-22 was first published in 1961).
The book’s main character is Billy Pilgrim and the story ranges through his life from his childhood to his last. During his life he became a dentist and fought in Europe in WW2 ending up at Dresden as a prisoner of war at the time of the firebombing in early 1945. That makes two books I have read recently set at the time of the firebombing in Dresden – you can see a review of the other one here.
The book, however, does not tell Billy’s life story in chronological order because Billy experiences times when he drifts back and relives his past. This means that Billy seems often not to be engaged with what is happening around him and he appears almost to drift through life while others experience difficulties – although the events of the past will eventually catch up with him by the end of his life.
I liked experiencing Billy’s life in this way. The narrator is omniscient and tells us what other characters are thinking, what they think of Billy and then what happens to them when the story moves on. Many of the things which happen to others are quirky or unusual but the book takes them very seriously.
The bombing of Dresden is the centrepiece of the book and it is horrific. The author isn’t unnecessarily gory but he does show the tremendous consequences of the event. Billy is present and sees what has happened but he doesn’t blame the Allies as he thinks that it is a necessary part of the war. My understanding is that the author was at Dresden at this time and that this bit of the book is written directly from his experience – there is an introduction by the author which merges into the story and is referred to by the narrator that backs this up.
If you hate unusual narrative formats then this book is not for you (and nor is Catch-22 or A Clockwork Orange each of which is told in a different but equally unusual way). If you are prepared to give the format a try I think you will find that this is a very different story, often funny and that all the pieces fit together to give us a picture of what it might have been like to grow up at this time and in these places. I am glad that I gave it a go.