Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut

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Chosen by Rachel

Kurt Vonnegut writes of his own experiences as a World War II prisoner in Slaughterhouse Five, in particular the bombing of Dresden.

On February 13, 1945, only months before the end of World War II, the Allies undertook a two-hour bombing of Dresden, Germany, an unarmed, historic city of no military importance. The attack killed 135,000 people. Vonnegut and other prisoners were held captive in an underground slaughterhouse there, the only reason they survived.

The novel’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, undergoes the same fate, coming to ground to find a flattened city. As a result Billy becomes unstuck in time and begins time travelling, a metaphor for his post-war PTSD.  With­out any forewarning, he finds himself suddenly transported to traumatic moments in his past or future.

At several points in the novel, including all of the opening chapter, Vonnegut addresses the reader directly, mentioning his own real-life experiences as a POW and discussing the difficulties he has had in writing about his war experiences. He also tells of his visit with fellow prisoner, Bernard O’Hare and how O’Hare’s wife urges Vonnegut not to glam­orise the war in the book he is writing. He promises that he will not.

As well as travelling to other moments in his life, the book’s protagonist Billy also travels to a fictional planet called Tralfamadore after being kidnapped by aliens. This mythical world is a product of Billy’s innocence and insanity and provides him a safe place in which he can escape the memories of humankind’s willingness to destroy itself.

Slaughterhouse Five is a satirical, metafictional novel, and fifty years after its initial publi­cation, it remains Vonnegut’s most discussed and widely admired novel. It is the birthplace of the saying “so it goes”.

And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. So she was turned into a pillar of salt. So it goes.

This book was affecting for us all to read. It is cleverly written and there is much to admire stylistically. The autobiographical passages bookending Billy Pilgrim’s post-traumatic stress are constant reminders that fact and fiction are tightly interwoven, giving the story more punch and grim effect. The story lets us know that both the author and protagonist are doomed to relive moments of their lives over and over, represented by Billy’s time travelling, which is comic but desperately sad at the same time. We couldn’t help but be touched.


Published 1969
215 pages

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