Sunday Book Club
Meet Billy Pilgrim, a US soldier held as a prisoner during World War II who becomes “unstuck in time”, floating between moments of his life, including his abduction by an alien race known as the Tralfamadorians. Billy is a figment of Kurt Vonnegut’s imagination, conjured for the US author’s 1969 meta-fictional novel, Slaughterhouse-Five.
Shining a light on the horrors of World War II by drawing comparisons to the Children’s Crusade – a failed crusade in 1212 aimed at taking back Jerusalem from the Muslims with an army of over 20,000 adolescents – the text is loosely guided by Vonnegut’s own experiences as a soldier. Captured by the Germans at just 22-years-old, the novelist was locked up with other Americans in Schlachthof-Fünf (Slaughterhouse-Five) beneath the city of Dresden. Vonnegut was there on February 13th 1945, when allied forced firebombed the city in an infamous air attack that flattened the city and 130,000 people, so it goes (a phrase repeated by Vonnegut after every mention of death and mortality – aiding to the humanistic, fatalistic themes within the text). Touching on such harrowing issues, the genius of Slaughterhouse-Five is its ability to address these horrors through entertainment, sci-fi and genuine humour.
Throughout, Vonnegut jabs a sharp take on free will, while kidnapped by the Tralfamadorians, the alien race teach Pilgrim their way of perceiving time: they see that the past, present, and future all exist simultaneously and forever and are simply there, fixed, eternally. And while there, with 20-year-old actress/porn star named Montana Wildhack who the Tralfamadorians have also abducted in an attempt to get the two to mate, his experiences of alien entrapment in someway mirror his of being a PoW: they immediately strip him naked and dehumanise him, caging him up like an animal.
One of the most celebrated and influential works of contemporary American fiction, the book has since filtered into pop culture, being name-checked in everything from The Simpsons to Footloose – while Guillermo del Toro has long expressed his desire to make a film adaptation of the book with a script by Charlie Kaufman (which sounds excellent). Yet the text has also been subject to its fair share of censorship attempts; most notably in 1982, when Island Trees Union Free Public School District removed a selection of books, including Slaughterhouse-Five, from high school libraries for being “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, and just plain filthy.”