“Slaughterhouse – Five” by Kurt Vonnegut

“Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time… He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between… Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next.”

“Slaughterhouse – Five” recounts Billy’s dalliance in the World War II as a chaplain’s assistant and an optometrist-to-be. Clad in Cinderella’s silver boots and a civilian’s miniature coat, he is an epitome of the pathos and preposterousness of the American soldiers. His appearance and ridiculous military preparation delineate the idea that foolish virgins, discouraged from being characters and fighting for their true beliefs, go to war – as the original title of the book “Children’s Crusades” suggests.

However, due to Billy’s extraordinary ability to foray into his past and his future, we get a general notion of his whole life, which has been incredulously influenced by the fiction work of the apocryphal author Kilgore Trout. We trace Mr. Pilgrim’s imponderable adventures as he witnesses the bombing of Dresden, becomes a prominent optometrist, marries a plump woman with a sweet tooth, is abducted by Trafalmadorians  and has a fling with Montana Wildhack – a pornographic sensation. And in the end, we see his own end. ” So it goes.”

What fascinated me most in the book was the aliens’ philosophy of life. They have an astoundingly distinct approach to everyday happenstances, believing that one should focus only on the pleasant aspects, and neglect all the poignant occurrences.  “Later on in life, the Trafalmadorians would advise Billy to concentrate on the happy moments of his life, and to ignore the unhappy ones – to stare only at the pretty things as eternity fails to go by.”

But it’s not their attitude or appearance that mostly distinguishes them from us. It’s the way they comprehend time. We see life as a series of pictures in an endless game of “Tag”. Each moment is tenuous – distorted and maimed by the ones preceding it and the ones trailing it. But Trafalmadorians apprehend the eternity of each moment. “It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.”

That’s why they never mourn, or shed even a single tear for the late ones. “So it goes”, a Trafalmadorian would say and pass any corpse as nonchalantly as one passes a gray pebble. It’s a beautiful consolation that each dead person is very much alive and robust at some other time. They are dead only in this particular moment so it is imbecile to grieve and weep at funerals. Instead, we should rejoice at all the happiness this creature has had, has and always will have. For “all moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist.”

These wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey stuff enable Billy to leap across his own timeline and relive random moments of his ephemeral existence, reviewing the choices he has made and their insignificance because “only on Earth is there any talk of free will”.

“Slaughterhouse – Five” is a brilliant novel by Kurt Vonnegut, as disjointed and unstuck in time as its protagonist. It offers us an objective view on the way we interpret life and the vitality with which we endow all that befalls us. If you want a fresh breath from the consistent, straightforward literature whose characters control their past, present and future, this is the book for you.




2 thoughts on ““Slaughterhouse – Five” by Kurt Vonnegut

  1. Pingback: Lines of power | Eric M. Ralph

  2. Pingback: Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five | Leaning Forward

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