Not anti-war so much as anti-hope

Slaughterhouse-Five, a fatalistic, despairing work, is perfect radio listening for a Sunday afternoon.

Patrick West

Patrick West

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Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five is considered one of the most iconic books of the 1960s; a work which, as Vonnegut’s obituary in The Times (London) concluded, ‘expressed the Sixties’ American generation’s rejection of war as a means of achieving state policy or human good’ (1). It appealed to a populace sickened by US involvement in Vietnam, and its depiction of the Allied bombing of Dresden in 1945 (which Vonnegut actually experienced) also cast a shadow of ambivalence over the Second World War, a conflict that had previously been described, and understood, as a morally tidy contest between good and evil. Now, to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Slaughterhouse-Five’s publication, the book has been adapted for radio for the first time.

Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday and dramatised by Dave Sheasby, Drama on 3: Slaughterhouse 5 immediately reminded this listener just what a strange book this is (2). Its protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is a pathetic American soldier captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge, and then transported to Dresden to be housed in disused slaughterhouse ‘number 5’. Throughout the tale Billy Pilgrim also finds himself transported through time to revisit various moments in his life, and transported through space owing to his abduction by an alien race called the Tralfamadorians.

These beings see in four dimensions, and thus perceive moments in time as we would mountains on a skyline: fixed entities to be perceived, not moments to be fleetingly experienced. As a consequence the Tralfamadorians are predestinarians, who perceive time not as something that ticks away, but as a fixed canvas, and moments as places to call in to.

Dave Sheasby’s adaptation successfully replicated the gloomy fatalism of Slaughterhouse-Five, with narrator John Guerassio’s rich, tremulous North American timbre capturing Vonnegut’s own languid cadence. Andrew Scott’s Billy Pilgrim is just as hopeless and innocent yet sympathetic as the original, and Simon Lee Philips reminds you quite what a disgusting, cowardly, bullying creep Roland Weary is – or was.

Sheasby has abridged the text with a little too much enthusiasm, but to his credit, it would not show to the uninitiated, and it must take some skill to compress a novel into exactly 90 minutes of radio. My only gripe, and this is no fault whatsoever of the show’s makers, is that all the Americans speak with an American accent, all the British in British accents, and all the Germans in a German accent. My reading mind’s accent is south-eastern English, and so for me are the accents of all the story’s characters. When books are adapted to film you don’t seem to notice this; with audio alone the discrepancy becomes weirdly pronounced.

Slaughterhouse-Five makes for ideal Sunday evening listening just as it does for end-of-the-weekend reading. This is because it is a profoundly fatalistic and depressing piece of work that makes you long for the working week to start. The novel’s famous motif ‘And so it goes’ is repeated for deliberate effect, to remind you of the sense of hopelessness, and the indiscriminate, repetitious, nature of existence that Sunday evenings seem to engender. Vonnegut sums up this sentiment when he has Billy Pilgrim ask the Tralfamadorians why they chose to abduct him in particular:

‘”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?”

“Yes.” (Billy, in fact, had a paperweight in his office which was a blob of polished amber with three ladybugs embedded in it.)

“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why.”‘ (3)

I hadn’t read Slaughterhouse-Five for nearly 10 years, but re-reading it, and digesting it aurally, I was reminded not merely how fatalistic it was, but, for a supposedly anti-war bible, how unmotivating and apathetic it was, too. Vonnegut’s 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle is a far more strident and abrasive anti-war book, specifically on the absurdity of the nuclear arms race. Contrarily, Slaughterhouse-Five‘s message seems to be: ‘Shit happens and there’s nothing you can do about it.’ Vonnegut hints as much in the introduction when he recalls declaring his intention to the movie maker, Harrison Starr, to write about his experiences in Dresden.

‘”You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”
“No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?”
“I say, ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?”‘

Vonnegut writes: ‘What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that, too.’ (4)

In the tale that ensues, Billy Pilgrim’s wife dies of accidental carbon-monoxide poisoning and his father is accidentally shot dead during a deer hunt (5). The cold, meaningless hand of fate permeates the tale, and the only creatures who can make sense of the apparent chaos are the Tralfamadorians:

‘”If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings”, said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by “free will”. I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”‘ (6)

Slaughterhouse-Five is basically a more savage precursor to The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with fewer laughs: both represent an absurd, meaningless universe. In Douglas Adams’s magnum opus, the Earth is demolished to make way for a new interstellar highway; in Vonnegut’s we learn that the entire Universe is destroyed after an experiment to test fuels for flying saucers goes awry (7).

So why it became a rallying focus for the anti-war movement after its publication in 1969 is a mystery. I suspect that it actually appealed to a feeling of apathy that started to envelop the radical movements after the dreams of 1968 had failed to materialise, while the murder in 1969 of an 18-year-old black youth by Hell’s Angels at a Rolling Stones concert at Altamont came to herald the end of the hippy dream.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a brilliant, haunting work, but hardly a revolutionary one. Quite the opposite. And so it goes. Or as we would say today: ‘Whatever.’

Patrick West is spiked’s TV and radio columnist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV and radio

(1) Kurt Vonnegut: The Times obituary, The Times, 12 April 2007

(2) Listen to Drama on 3: Slaughterhouse 5 here.

(3) p55, Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, Vintage, 1991

(4) p3, Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, Vintage, 1991

(5) p18 & p23, Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, Vintage, 1991

(6) p62, Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, Vintage, 1991

(7) p84, Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, Vintage, 1991

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