“Slaughterhouse 5 or The Children’s Crusade”- Kurt Vonnegut
“Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt”
I pick up books off the cuff but there’s always a pattern. Well, most of the times. I read a quote somewhere and immediately look up the author and the source of the quote. And almost always, I end up reading the book and liking it.
It is structured that way.
Praise for Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse 5 or The Children’s Crusade” is voluminous. Its humor has been called pungent, the writing ingenious. The book was a pop-culture icon. It was being banned in schools, garnering massive reactions from lovers and haters alike at its time. I had to read this one.
I started, tentatively. A war book with a gory name and a confusing alternate title? At least I’d learn some history.
And then, I read. I absorbed. I learnt more than just about the bombing of Dresden in the February of 1945 or Harry S Truman’s announcement of blowing up Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the August of that same year. I learnt about Russians, Germans and Americans. About how similar these bipeds were beneath that hairless cover we call skin, only divided by geographical and cultural differences. Hate and violence wasn’t really a subject in the book, tolerance was.
I also learnt what an “Iron Maiden” actually is!
There were spurts of patriotism and remarkable commentary about religion. There were stories. Multiple stories separated from the main one by what I like to call “narratorial relief.” There was life and there was death, so it goes.
And then there was time travel. There were aliens and their cosmic, four-dimensional wisdom.
The Meat Sketch
The protagonist of the book – Billy Pilgrim – is a war veteran and a time traveller. Vonnegut takes us through Billy’s life in a fractured narrative, going back and forth in age, in time, with ease.
The story has quite a few characters and not one of them is a waste of time. The story also has multiple limericks and quartets, and not one of them is out of context. The book has two illustrations, which have become two of the greatest quotes in time. I started the review with one. I started the book because of one.
Every detail in the book is crystal clear. Every scene is a vivid picture. Some are caricatures of stark emotion while the others are just splashes of utter indifference.
The characters speak of war matter-of-factly. “It had to be done” – one says. They experienced war as it came. They experienced the aftermath as it came too. They walked, sat, slept, ate and shat like cattle ushered around. They died because they had to. They lived because they did.
“Slaughterhouse 5” is more than just an anti-war book. It portrays PTSD in its most distinct form while also throwing nuggets of psychological, philosophical and sci-fi value at the reader. It is about living in the moment. It is about acceptance. It is a reminder that death is not the end.
The alternate title – “The Children’s Crusade” – too, makes so much sense once you’ve read the book. The prose is simple and while many have hated on it for exactly that, a book of such contentual volume could not afford to have a Shakespearean accent!
Often times I kept the book down to wonder why Billy didn’t act on circumstances when he knew it was already going to happen.
Because, It was structured that way.
I want to end this with my favourite lines from the book:
“– Why me?
– That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?
– Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”