28 November 2014
SLAUGHTERHOUSE 5 by Kurt Vonnegut
At least I know why I started to read this book in the first place. I had decided to include more ‘classics’ in my reading repertoire and Vonnegut was mentioned with some degree of prominence in THE UNIVERSE VERSUS ALEX WOODS, a book I much admire and said so in my review of it earlier this year. Besides which, DLW (my dear lady wife) had already acquired a copy and left it lying about the house. Enough reason then to add it to the ever-growing Book Tower next to my bed.
Why I continued reading it once I’d got into it is an entirely different story. It’s really not my kind of book at all and I think I realized that fairly early on. If the back cover is to be believed, it’s allegedly a work of science fiction. It must be since its main protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is a time-traveller.
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.
The blurb goes on to claim it’s one of the world’s great anti-war books. And true, it’s centred around the infamous fire-bombing of Dresden in World War Two. But the book is no more ‘about’ this event than BIRDS OF THE NILE is ‘about’ the revolution in Egypt in 2011. My problem was deciding what the book was about at all.
To begin with, I’m not convinced that Billy Pilgrim is actually a time-traveller anyway. If it weren’t for the Tralfamadorians (and we’ll come on to them in a moment) there’d be no need for him to be one – and the fact that he’s portrayed as such appears to be nothing more than a contrivance on behalf of the author which allows him to skip randomly about through various periods of Billy Pilgrim’s life. Ever more randomly, I felt, as we approached the ending.
Perhaps the clue was in the name and I reached for my dictionary. Pilgrim – ‘a person who undertakes a journey to a sacred place’. If so, where was this sacred place? Tralfamadore didn’t appear particularly sacred to me. Neither, I have to say, does death.
And what of the Tralfamadorians themselves? Who are they? In the book, a race of aliens who capture Pilgrim and put him on display. But why, and to what end, I have no idea. I’m left with the horrible suspicion that they represent something or somebody that those people who ’get’ this book find blindingly obvious eg. the Russians, the Chinese or Big Brother. Not only that but the nature and purpose of Billy Pilgrim are equally obvious to them, as is what the book is ‘about’. Being a bear of very small brain, I am fearful of asking those who know for fear of being thought stupid. What do you mean, you don’t understand? But in truth, I don’t and there’s no point denying it.
I suppose I could have cheated and looked things up online. But while this might enable me to appear far more knowledgeable than I really am, I have an unwritten rule about reviewing that says I must form my own independent opinion before reading anyone else’s. Unfortunately, this still leaves me in the dark and is of no help to you – unless, of course, you are one of those clever clogs who already ‘get’ it. In which case please feel free to enlighten me by leaving your wise and learned words in the comments box at the bottom of the page. I shan’t feel embarrassed in the least.