Slaughterhouse Five, published in 1969, is Kurt Vonnegut’s partially autobiographical novel about an American soldier who, as a prisoner of war, witnesses the bombing of Dresden in February 1945. The experience is so traumatic that he becomes untethered to normal life. He drifts about in time and space, to the extent of occasionally finding himself on the alien planet of Tralfamadore, where he is an exhibit in a zoo. The Tralfamadorians have no concept of linear time, which means our soldier fits in quite well on their planet. I suppose in some ways you could view all this as a depiction of post traumatic stress. And of course from the point of view of fancy physics, time is a relative rather than an absolute thing going predictably in one direction. So maybe the soldier’s delusions have a truth in them.
In many ways this is a harsh book about the most extreme and horrific of experiences. I wondered how I was going to do anything as mundane as review it. But it’s also a book about ordinary experience, optometrists’ conferences in the 1960s for example. The extreme and the mundane, as seemingly different as past and future, float around together. Unbelievably it’s also funny at times, which adds another contrast to the free-floating mix.
Reading Slaughterhouse Five caused me to recall a time in early 1990 when I had to have a fairly major operation. The aftermath was initially incredibly painful, followed by a longer period of grinding discomfort as the nurses slowly hauled me back to health. The initial diagnosis – later modified – was not good and I was labouring under the shock of that news. There was one moment which is vivid in my memory. I was in bed connected up to lines, attached to bruised little points in the back of my hands and abdomen, restrained it seemed by delicate chains which I had to be careful not to break. I felt weak and ill and wondered if I would ever get better. At that moment there was a sudden realisation that this time was already over, and I was looking back at it from another situation, and another place. In the blink of an eye, I would be somewhere else.
I recalled that moment very powerfully reading Slaughterhouse Five. Maybe in its own small way, my moment in hospital was impactful enough to shake me out of things.
Bizarre as Slaughterhouse Five seems to be, it did make sense to me. It was reassuring in a way. I really enjoyed it.