Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: Part I

June 2, 2012

Kurt Vonnegut

In 1998, Mr. Vonnegut returned to Dresden, Germany; he revisited the slaughterhouse that served as an air-raid shelter during World War II where he and his fellow prisoners of war survived the fire bombing of Dresden. (Source: New York Times; Photo credit: Matthias Rietschel/Associated Press)

As the students settled in for our next session, Ragip accepted my invitation to read aloud the first two pages of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. When he finished, we talked about the autobiographical nature of this preface to fiction, Vonnegut’s insistence that “all this happened, more or less,” that shortly after Dresden had been fire-bombed to ashes, a soldier much like the character Edgar Derby really did get shot by a firing squad “for taking a teapot” from among the ruins, that a soldier much like Paul Lazzaro really did pledge to murder one day those who slighted him or his friends during the war, that Vonnegut “really did go back” to Dresden in 1967 with his “old war buddy” Bernard V. O’Hare to visit the Dresden slaughterhouse where they had spent their nights as prisoners of war (p. 1). After I asked why Vonnegut would want to stress this factual basis for his fiction, our conversation, much to my delight, turned back to Ernest Gaines, whose fiction about injustice and transformation also rooted in Gaines’s experience growing up in Louisiana in the 1930s and ‘40s, and to William Faulkner, who challenged all fiction writers to tell the truth about human brutality and the conflicts of the human heart, but also to uplift readers with evidence of “compassion” and “sacrifice.” Having congratulated the students on their insights to the great paradox of literature, the fictions that reveal truths, I asked them to keep Faulkner’s speech in mind as we discussed Vonnegut’s novel. “Has Vonnegut written one of those visions of despair that Faulkner condemned, or does he manage to tell these terrifying truths and, at the same time, to inspire hope that we—as individuals and as a culture—might not only endure but ‘prevail.’”

First edition cover of Slaughterhouse-Five: Or the Children’s Crusade (Source: Wikipedia)

Leaving this question hanging in the air, I noted Vonnegut’s admission of the futility of writing an “anti-war book” (p. 4), which he follows immediately with a description of himself in the late-1960s, materially comfortable but given to drinking too much and making late-night phone calls to old veterans of World War II (p. 5). “Does this description clarify why he would write this book, if he considers its anti-war position pointless?” I asked. Albana said that he seems haunted by the past, which leads to self-destructive behaviors but also to the need to talk to those who remember. “Maybe the writing comes from this same need to talk about it,” she offered. “Yes,” I responded, “and notice that he feels compelled to tell us again, the second time in six pages, that the story will end with ‘the execution of Edgar Derby’ (p. 6). Can you name another work we have read where we find out about the ending, an execution, on the first page?” Many voices responded with Gaines’s Lesson and the promised execution of another good man, Jefferson. “How might this up-front emphasis on the brutal, senseless death of a good man relate to the Faulknerian challenge for uplifting fiction?” I asked. Besa responded, suggesting the symbolic power of both executions, images simultaneously revealing our capacities for mindless cruelty and for goodness.

Applauding Besa’s interpretation, I asked the class to consider another image that Vonnegut juxtaposes to the execution of Derby, that of the “rabid little American” Lazzaro heading home from the war with “emeralds and rubies” he snatched from dead people “in the cellars of Dresden” (pp. 7-8). “Did you notice that after both images, Derby’s death and Lazzaro’s violation of the dead, the narrator says, ‘So it goes’? What do you make of this refrain, which you’ll hear throughout the novel?” Fidan suggested that line acknowledges not just the inevitability of death but also our inability to explain the injustice of men like Derby dying and men like Lazzaro thriving. “It just happens,” he said.

Naturally, I commended this intelligent remark but also stressed Vonnegut’s postmodern need to tell the story, to help us see what happened, however futile his protest against war and against “plain old death” might seem (p. 4). Vonnegut admits, I continued, that his story has generated a “short and jumbled and jangled” book because “there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre” (p. 24); still, he must write to set the record straight, to discredit versions of reality that ignore or hide that record. “Can you recall examples from chapter one of Vonnegut exposing others’ invitations to close our eyes to the truth?” I asked. Blerta mentioned Vonnegut’s anthropology professor, who teaches that “nobody was ridiculous or bad or disgusting,” a theory that would make no distinction between Derby and Lazzaro (p. 10). Her example sparked Gezim’s comments on Vonnegut’s boss, a man whose military service took him no further than Baltimore, who sneers at Vonnegut as an enlisted man and approves of war as a way for officers to advance. Gezim then quoted Vonnegut’s reflection on this smug non-combatant: “the ones who hated war the most were the ones who’d really fought” (p. 13).

“What about the episode at the O’Hare house? What terrible truth about war does Vonnegut insist that we see here?” I prodded. Hearing no answer, I asked, “Why do you think that Vonnegut mentions taking his daughter and her friend with him when he visits O’Hare to talk about the war?” Dafina said they he took the girls along just to see Cape Cod (p. 15). “Yes, I agreed, “but he has Dresden on his mind, and he knows that among the masses who died in the firestorm were thousands of little girls. How does one explain fire-bombing to children? Do you recall why Mary O’Hare, to whom Vonnegut dedicates his novel, initially resents Vonnegut’s visit? What does she assume his book will declare about war?” Albana promptly cited Mary’s anger, believing that Vonnegut would write a novel celebrating war, hiding the fact that “babies,” not men, do most of the dying (p. 18). “Yes,” I said, “and do you remember Jarrell’s “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” the ‘baby’ who dies in the belly of the bomber? How does Vonnegut respond to Mary?” Albana answered again, quoting Vonnegut’s promise to tell the truth about the “Children’s Crusade” in World War II, much like the Children’s Crusade that Vonnegut and O’Hare read about from the thirteenth century, when thousands of children were forced to fight in Palestine and then sold into sexual slavery (p. 20). Thanking Albana, I asked the class if they could explain why Vonnegut ends this chapter with an allusion to the Biblical story about Lot’s wife. Finding the reference, we all quickly agreed that Vonnegut the writer, like Lot’s wife, must “look back,” and he insists that we look, too.

Postmodern Poetry

May 14, 2012

As we gathered for the next session, I referred students to the board, where they saw a list of works from the postmodern period—post-World War II—that we had already read and discussed:

In reviewing the list, I suggested that we could begin thinking about postmodernism as a continuation of modernism, particularly the interrelated themes of remembering as a basis for moving on, for making decisions about how to use our time, themes addressed in all the works listed here and in many of the works we would take up in these last four weeks.  But the horror of World War II, especially its atomic ending, had such a traumatic effect on the entire culture, I said—as we saw in Faulkner’s question, “When will I be blown up”—that literary voices began to explore with new urgency the flux of our existence and its apparent absurdity.  “Some of these voices,” I continued, “sound post modern in their rejection of T.S. Eliot’s allusive, academic ‘high modernism,’ as we will hear today in ‘The Fish’; others, as we will see in Vonnegut, sound postmodern in their unflinching explorations of the violent absurdities of our culture.”

I also spoke of postmodern “chaos theory,” the idea that human beings can collaborate in creating order, however tentative, from the randomness of experience, as we saw in Lahiri’s “Sexy.”  “Miranda and Dev,” I reminded the students, “met by accident; then Miranda babysat for Rohin, an encounter she never planned; but she and Rohin collaborated in shaping a tentative order from the chaos the father’s adultery had caused, an order that disallows ‘loving strangers’ when such relationships root in deceit and crush the deceived.”  By the end of that story, I concluded, Miranda had learned to open her eyes, “and her new wakefulness gave her the courage to end the affair.”  This insistence on open eyes, I told the students, would inform every postmodern work we would read, and I challenged them to reflect on this idea of wakefulness as it might relate to Faulkner’s call for literature that gives us “hope,” that persuades us we can ‘endure and prevail.’

Bishop and Jarrell

Elizabeth Bishop (Source: Poetry Foundation)

Before we turned to Elizabeth Bishop’s 1946 poem “The Fish,” I asked the class to turn to her letter to her friend and fellow poet, Robert Lowell, whom she takes to task for writing poems about his recently divorced wife, poems that explore suffering but combine fiction and fact.  In doing so, she tells Lowell, he has violated a trust with his former wife and with his readers, who can’t know “what’s true, what isn’t” (2498).  “Postmodernists may consider “truth” a fluid, ever-changing phenomenon, but what does her remark to Lowell tell you about her sense of duty as a poet?” I asked.  Earning a “10” for the day, Besa said the she shares Martin Luther King’s commitment to seeing accurately and publishing what one sees.

I thanked Besa for providing us a perfect transition to “The Fish” and asked Arlind to read the poem aloud.  After Arlind’s reading, I re-read the first and last lines aloud: “I caught a tremendous fish….and I let the fish go.”  I then asked for a show of hands, fisher-hands.  Singling out Gezim among the fishermen and fisherwomen, I asked if he ever lets fish go.  “Only if it’s too small,” he answered.  “So why would she release a “tremendous” fish?  Does her description, her use of figurative language in between the first and last lines, help us to understand her bizarre decision?”  I asked.  With no quick response forthcoming, I asked the class to focus on the first two lines, on facts and details about the fish.  “What first strikes you as odd, given his size?”  I asked.  Ragip read line six: “He hadn’t fought at all.”  He then mentioned that the “homely” fish looks warn-out, “battered.”  “What about ‘venerable’?  What does this word suggest?”  Gezim offered that the fish must be venerated, respected, because he has fought many battles, “and his ‘skin hung in strips’” (ll. 8-10).  “Don’t we normally use words like ‘homely’ and ‘venerable’ and ‘grunting’ to describe people?  Why would Bishop want to personify the fish?” I prodded.  Edita suggested that the speaker begins to see more than a fish, something to eat; she sees a fellow being who has known struggle and deserves respect.

Commending the students’ close-reading interpretations, I asked what figures of speech Bishop uses in these lines to help us to see the fish more clearly.  After we noted the skin “like ancient wall-paper” decorated in “rose” patterns and barnacles, “rosettes of lime,” I asked what we begin to notice about this ‘homely’ fish?  Edita mentioned the “sea-lice” and “rags of green weed” hanging off its huge body, but she said that the simile and metaphor suggest beauty, not ugliness.  Praising her insight, I asked what other images and figures suggest beauty and further personify the fish.  We then quickly catalogued the details of Bishop’s portrait: the gills “fresh and crisp with blood,” the “white flesh/packed in like feathers,” the swim-bladder “like a big peony,” the eyes “larger than mine,” the “sullen face” from which “five old pieces of fish-line” hang down “like medals with their ribbons/frayed and wavering,/a five-haired beard of wisdom/trailing for his aching jaw” (ll.25, 27-28, 33-35, 45-63).  “So what does the speaker realize as she stares down at the exhausted but honorable old fighter that fills her boat with ‘victory,’ surrounded by a ‘rainbow’ of oily water and rust? (l. 65, 68-75)?  Why does she let her ‘victory’ go?”  I prodded further.  We then discussed the paradox that Bishop develops, the beautiful becoming one with the grotesque.  Such wakefulness, we agreed, allowed her—and her readers—to see the respectability, even honor of fellow non-human creatures, insights, I suggested, that Black Elk would have commended.

Randall Jarrell (Source: Poetry Foundation)

As we turned to Bishop’s contemporary, Randall Jarrell, I asked the students what this master teacher and military man insists that we see in “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” beyond the fact stated in the title. With no quick answer coming, I asked Bajram to read the five-line poem aloud:

 

 

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

When he finished, I asked for his response to the last line.  He said that the speaker uses the past tense, suggesting that he looks back on his own death from the perspective of eternity.  “And does he seem at all emotional about the removal of his remains from the plexiglass glass gunner’s station of the bomber?”  “No,” he responded, “he describes the removal of his guts as though he were describing the wiping of mud from a windshield.”  “Right,” I said, “so matter-of-fact, an everyday occurrence, yet such a shocking image of the consequences of aerial warfare.  What do we learn about this victim?  How old is he?” I asked.  We then wrestled with the equally horrible metaphor in the first line, which describes a baby falling from its “mother’s sleep,” from his mother’s womb, into the “belly,” the womb of the State, the bomber.  “How does the verb “fell” underscore the youth of the airman?”  I asked.  Fidan responded, stressing the almost instantaneous transformation of the infant into a soldier.  Complimenting him on his interpretation, I said we would see the same idea explored in Vonnegut’s novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, subtitled The Children’s Crusade, stressing that ‘children’ do most of the dying in wars.  “Babies of course come wet from the warm uterus.  What happens to the wet baby in the bomber?” I asked.  Several voices responded, citing the frozen “wet fur” on the flight jacket.  I then asked what they made of the fourth and fifth lines, the reference to getting loose from the “dream of life” and waking to the cacophonous “nightmare” of “black flak.”  Arlind suggested that peace must be a dream, an illusion, that reality must be the hell of war.  “Why doesn’t Jarrell end of the poem with such a statement,” I wondered.  “Who needs it?”  Arlind responded.  “Precisely,” I said.  If we have seen the image, we don’t need a tacked-on moral.  It’s all about seeing—and having the courage to keep your eyes open.”

I then invited readings from journals, those prose or poetic accounts of everyday objects or animals that ‘so much depends’ on seeing.  Remembering Merita’s reading from her journal the previous week, when she spoke of her frustrations with poetry, her skepticism that ‘so much depends’ on poetry, I feared that no one had responded with a poem.  To my delight, hands shot up across the room, and nearly everyone had a poem to share.  Many of these poems centered on their memories of their mothers.  Blerta, for example, read her poem about her mother’s “sun-beam” smiles; Xhemile described her mother’s “wrinkles” and her “vigorous eyes,” images of her “unconditional love” and her abiding guidance; then Merita brought the whole class to tears with “I See You Coming In,” her memory of her deceased mother:

I see you coming in, little by little, in small steps,
With an albatross round your neck,
I wonder will it ever go away.
You have the snow in your hair; I didn’t notice it’s already winter.
The wrinkles on you face tell that it was heavy all the way through.
I lift you in my arms as you are tall as an eleven-year-old girl,
Oh, no, the great soul of yours makes you big as a mountain.
I kiss your tired face, and then you cry.
Inside your eyes I see a mirror of me.
You kiss me back.  Don’t worry, I am fine, you say.
And I want to hold your hand until I count your ages spots
And start over, all over, again, so you don’t ever go for a second time.

As we all mopped our faces and prepared to leave, I thanked those who had read for demonstrating the power and accessibility of poetry.  I reminded them, too, that we would sample postmodern fiction next time, as represented by Flannery O’Connor’s story “Good Country People.”  After they finished the story, I asked that they write an interpretive response in their journals to the end of the story, where we see another startling revelation, Joy-Hulga in the barn-loft, legless.

S. A Novel about the Balkans

March 2, 2012

Slavenka Drakulić, Zagreb, 27 Oct 09, by Goran Mehkek

Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulić published S. A Novel about the Balkans in 1999, just seven years after Serbian forces rounded up Bosnian Muslims and moved them to concentration camps, where prisoners—women and girls, men and boys—suffered all manner of humiliation and abuse but especially “mass rape,” what Drakulić calls “the most horrifying means of humiliation….Rape is about power, about one group of soldiers sending a clear message of intimidation to another group” (Penguin Reader’s Guide, 8).

Yet this terrifying novel has a tender, some would say hopeful, ending, for the character S begins to rebuild her sense of humanity by finally accepting motherhood. Impregnated by her rapists, S initially loathes the infant growing inside her “like a tumour,” a “parasite” engendered by countless brutish ‘fathers’ (2, 178). But after a prisoner-exchange moves her from the “women’s room,” the site of the rapes, to a refugee camp in Zagreb, others’ acts of kindness gradually overcome her fear of a child conceived in rape.

Cover of Drakulić's S. A Novel about the Balkans

Cover of Drakulić's S. A Novel about the Balkans

First, a Zagreb cousin houses her in her cramped apartment, freeing her from an infinitely less brutal but still dehumanizing ‘camp’ (149). Then in Stockholm, where S goes to have her baby, she stumbles across a school-mate, now a refugee worker, who houses S, gives her wholesome food and warm clothes, and tries to coax her away from her plan to give up her rape-child for adoption (170). Clearly, S needs such tenderness, for she continues to struggle with the “shame and guilt” (183) suffered by so many victims of rape. Longing to forget (175), S only hopes that some adoptive mother and father can give her baby what she can never provide, a “better past” (194).

But once her son arrives, S instinctively moves to cover the sleeping child. First she “recoils,” but when the child “closes his tiny fist around her extended finger,” S feels “utter tranquility” and melts into motherhood, determined to teach her boy that “hate” can be “transformed into love” (196, 197, 199).

Asked about this ostensibly hopeful conclusion to the novel, Drakulić denies that “this ending is so hopeful” (Guide 8), stressing instead the ambiguity. Accepting her child changes everything, presumably for the good, for S and her son, but how, Drakulic wonders, will S tell her son one day the “horror” of the “truth” about his fathers? And of course this union of mother and son changes nothing about the capacity of men to make other men rape their sons before shooting them both (109), to gang-rape a woman and then extinguish their cigarettes on their victim’s breast before urinating in her mouth (62, 78).

Yet the novel does unfold the reality of friendship, as noted above. It also portrays characters who perform life-endangering acts of kindness and courage, such as N, who works in the kitchen, smuggling warm bread and edible soup to the prisoners (92). Consistently, too, the novel traces S’s manipulative seductions of her abusers, including the camp Captain, acts of courage and intelligence that enable her to survive (97-102). All such actions–in this novel about victimization, helplessness—underscore choice and, as Drakulić puts it, our “moral responsibility,” our humanizing duty to take another’s hand (Guide 3).

"Ruby Holding Mother's Finger," Barrie Spence , ©2011

The Three-Arched Bridge

February 21, 2012

If you read the Valentine’s Day posting on the legend of Rozafa, you no doubt found inspiring the purity of Rozafa’s self-sacrificial love for her child and her country, yet you also noticed the ambiguity surrounding the brothers’ decisions and actions.  On the one hand, to their credit, the two elder brothers break their pledges to keep secret the imminent human sacrifice in order to protect their wives, and the youngest brother, seemingly a man of honor, keeps his “besa,” his pledge to say nothing about the immurement to Rozafa.  On the other hand, the elder brother hangs his head in shame when he tells Rozafa that the wall demands a human life, for Rozafa has been chosen not by “chance,” as he claims, but rather by the elder brothers’ manipulative hypocrisy.  Further, if the sacrifice must be determined by chance, then the three brothers might have drawn lots so that one of them, not one of their wives, would die.  The men, in other words, find motives for their actions in self-preservation and fear.  Only the woman, Rozafa, overcomes her ‘trembling’ and gives her life for her child and for Albania.

Cover of The Three-Arched Bridge

Cover of The Three-Arched Bridge

Albania’s great novelist Ismail Kadare draws on the legend of Rozafa in his 1976 novel  The Three-Arched Bridge (Ura Me Tri Harqe), another story of immurement that roots the theme of sacrifice in the ambiguity of motives.  Kadare has set his story in the late fourteenth century, just one generation before the Albanian hero Skanderbeg leads the resistance to the Ottoman invasion of 1444, a resistance that ends in 1479 at the Siege of Shkodra, where the triumphant Turks littered the Citadel of Rozafa with 60,000 Albanian corpses to be shredded by vultures.  With the monk Gjon narrating Kadare’s novel, we learn that Albania stands in need of another building project, this time a bridge, to link Albania to the rest of the Balkans at a time when Ottomans have already infiltrated the culture, a precursor to invasion.   Though this bridge, just like Rozafa’s castle, goes up quickly, after each night the piers and arches show signs of damage no hammer or claw could inflict, generating wide-spread gossip in favor of another “sacrifice for the sake of the thousands and thousands of travelers” who will cross the bridge “down the centuries to come” (105).

Well informed about Rozafa’s patriotic act, Gjon immediately notices that this call for sacrifice has more to do with commerce than with defense, so he wonders who might be willing to die for a significantly lesser cause.  But someone does volunteer to be walled in the bridge, Murrash Zenebisha, an “ordinary” man, a mason, just like Rozafa’s husband (114).  Yet instead of responding with adulation for Murrash when Gjon hears rumors of his heroism, Gjon reacts with confusion over the mason’s lack of a clear motive for martyrdom, then with horror when he sees Murrash “planted in the stone,” his face “splattered” with a “mask” of plaster, his “arms and legs…merged with the wall (115), his “oblivious white eyes” staring out at the monk (117).  Gjon’s terror grows, too, when he notices Murrash’s “wounds…between the neck and collar bone” (122), and when Murrash’s family members, seemingly “petrified” with grief initially, soon bring suit against one another after quarreling over “compensation” for their kinsman’s death (131, 177).  Has Murrash been murdered, caught sabotaging a bridge he believed would benefit only foreigners and a corrupt local Count?  Has Murrash’s family sold him out for profit?

Ura e Mesit (Mes Bridge), Shkodra, Albania

Ura e Mesit (Mes Bridge), Shkodra, Albania

With Murrash supporting the bridge, Gjon concedes that it quickly becomes a splendid “rainbow” structure.  But this supposed guarantor of a prosperous future, Gjon knows, has “death at its foundations” (157, 151), a martyrdom tainted by lies.   Eventually, Kadare’s narrator acknowledges his own complicity, confessing his presence as the Count and the bridge-builders planned the murder of Murrash (184, 122).  Yet Gjon persists courageously with his chronicle to the end, even as the Turkish horsemen clash with Albanian patriots on the bridge (179), thus mitigating his role in the death of the mason.  But fear for his country blends with his courage, and that fear roots in self-knowledge, as Gjon imagines his ethnic identity plastered and dead in the bridge, a bridge built—as was Rozafa’s castle—with sacrificial blood and soul-withering lies.

The significance of Kadare’s novel rests not only in the morality tale—break not thy besa—but also in Kadare’s Faulkner-like capacity to paint so vividly the truths of the human heart, a heart sometimes strong enough to die for others but often weak enough to succumb to fears and lies.  If these same kinds of hearts beat in Asia and the West as well as in Albania, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe, then we may read Kadare’s work as a prophecy for us all.  As we behold Rozafa’s milk streaming down the fortress walls, then Murrash’s eyes peering from the bridge, we witness at once our past and our future, our collective magnificence and our self-inflicted doom.

For a full discussion of Kadare’s novel in the context of the legend of Rozafa, see my article “Albania Immured: Rozafa, Kadare, and the Sacrifice of Truth,” published in the South Atlantic Review, volume 1, number 4, fall 2006, pages 62-77.  The ideas above and much of the language come directly from the article.