It’s been a long time since a book has affected me so deeply, in both a literary and personal sense. It’s going to be hard to fathom my reaction to Vonnegut’s words (ironically most probably echoing Vonnegut’s failure to fathom the war which is transparent through his words) but I’ll do my best.
I lived in Dresden for eight months during late 2014, early 2015. I didn’t even realise that during the February of my stay was the 70th anniversary of the event itself. The one Vonnegut can’t fathom. The one I, perhaps like the rest of the world, has completely miscalculated and underestimated.
The fire bombing of Dresden.
Hundreds of thousands of people died during the bombs that fell on the city, and although I had lived in and loved Dresden, seen its repaired stated and celebrated its renewal, knowing as I did vaguely of the atrocities that had happened, I could never have known the extent of the damage. I was ill-informed and under-educated and I can only blame myself for that.
So to say that Vonnegut’s words hit me like a ton of bricks to the heart would most probably be accurate.
Vonnegut decides at the beginning of his novel that he can’t possibly write a book about the war, about Dresden and what he saw happen there. So, instead, he decides to write about someone else. A man called Billy Pilgrim who also experiences the war and the fire bombing of Dresden; who is also traumatised and scarred by his experiences, but who is also abducted by the alien race of Tralfamadorians. He is also able to travel in between time to all the moments of his life, between his life and death, and does so frequently and without warning or order.
The Tralfamadorians say that time is not linear like us humans believe, and that in one moment we are actually experiencing all of the other moments of our lives. That is the way Billy experiences it anyway. He is constantly disorientated within the timeline of his own life, past, present and future: moving between the war, to childhood memories, to his time spent at the human zoo on the alien planet of the Tralfamadorians as easily as falling asleep.
There’s not much to say about war that hasn’t already been said. Vonnegut acknowledges that himself in his own words, in his own book that is supposed to be about war. In such a context, time travelling and alien abduction doesn’t seem so strange. In fact, quite clear is that the strangest thing there could be in the universe is the human race, what it has done to each other, what it will do again. That’s what the Tralfamadorians think. That’s why they put Billy in a zoo.
I guess the only thing I can say to any of this is what Vonnegut himself says continually through Slaughterhouse-Five. I lived in Dresden and knew very little about what had happened. To be fair, a lot of human history had taken place in the city since then. I read this book on tubes and in cafes in my normal human life and looked up, almost as surprised as the time-travelling and abducted Billy Pilgrim to see life going on around me without notice of what I had just experienced. So it goes, I suppose. So it goes.