I’ve been putting off reading this book because I imaged it to be a war book depicting gruesome scenes and legends of gallantry. How mistaken I was! I don’t know where I got that impression from, but it turned out to be quite a funny read, I guess Kurt Vonnegut’s way of dealing with war is making light of it, relegating it to banality.
The book follows a clumsy American non-combatant, Billy Pilgrim, as he serves in the Army in Germany and then gets captured as a prisoner of war. So Vonnegut narrates the events leading to the bombing of Dresden through the eyes of a third person protagonist; he himself appears in the plot only twice – almost like a walk-on. There’s no carnage depicted, and the gullible Pilgrim keeps going thanks to his optimism. After the war, he finds himself capable of time-travel as PTSD takes its toll, and he keeps telling people he’s been abducted by aliens from a planet called Tralfamadore – another way in which Vonnegut turns tragedy into comedy.
The blurb calls the book “a miraculously moving, bitter and funny story of innocence faced with apocalypse, in the most original anti-war novel since Catch-22.” Yes, this is a very fitting description. Apparently the book has been banned in the US on several occasions due to its “irreverent tone.”
A passage from the book:
“When Billy Pilgrim’s name was inscribed in the ledger of the prison camp, he was given a number too, and an iron dogtag in which the number was stamped. A slave laborer from Poland had done the stamping. He was dead now. So it goes.
Billy was told to hang the tag around his neck along with his American dogtags, which he did. The tag was like a salt cracker, perforated down its middle so that a strong man could snap it in two with his bare hands. In case Billy died, which he didn’t, half of the tag would mark his body and half would mark his grave.
After poor Edgar Derby, the high school teacher, was shot in Dresden later on, a doctor pronounced him dead and snapped his dogtag in two. So it goes” (66).
I didn’t know those metal tags were called dogtags, Turkish recruits still wear them (I had to look up its Turkish name as well) and I didn’t know they served that purpose. Vonnegut keeps concluding sad paragraphs with the phrase “so it goes.” I guess this is another attempt at brushing away sadness.