Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: Part II

June 2, 2012 (cont.)

Artist: Alida Rosie Sayer. Second part of Slaughterhouse-Five: Type and Form project, a hung piece made from 78 layers of hand-cut letterpress prints, April-June 2009. (Source: Alida Rosie Sayer blog, used with permission)

We then took up chapters two and three, where Vonnegut introduces his main character, Billy Pilgrim, through whom Vonnegut does his ‘looking back’ throughout the rest of the novel, but that looking back, I noted, violates chronological order because Billy has “come unstuck in time” (p. 29).  “What do you make of Billy’s time-travels,” I asked, “and of his abduction by Tralfamadorians?  Do you see Billy as deranged, driven mad by the absurd violence that punctuates his life, beginning with his experience as a prisoner of war and as a witness of the fire-bombing of Dresden and ending with the plane crash in 1968 that kills everyone but Billy?” My question quickly generated evidence for such a view, evidence focused primarily on the cartoonish goofiness of the Tralfamadorian aliens, described as “two feet high, and green, and shaped like plumber’s friends,” and on Billy’s equally improbable union with movie-star Montana Wildhack, with whom he starts a family inside their glass bubble on Tralfamadore (p. 32).  We noted, too, the reference to shock-treatments some veterans, including Billy, received after the war, suggesting that those driven mad by the war needed to be numbed and pacified so that they might re-enter society as seemingly normal (p. 30).  While commending such close reading, I suggested, too, that they remain open to competing interpretations of Billy’s insanity, particularly given the striking similarity between Billy’s time-travel, which allows him to see “his birth and his death many times,” to the Buddhist idea that our notions of time are illusory, that all moments occur simultaneously (p. 29), or, as Billy learns on Tralfamadore, that “all moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist” (p. 34).  Persuaded of the truth of this perspective on experience, I continued, when Billy tries to teach others about the simultaneity of every moment, he sees himself as a good postmodern optometrist, “prescribing corrective lenses for Earthling souls” (p. 36).

Offering to serve as scribe at the board, I then asked the students to list, focusing on chapters two and three, precisely what we see of the war through Billy’s corrective lenses.  Their listing kept me busy at the board:

  • Billy’s suffering as a front-line survivor: no helmet, no boots, feeling “cold, hungry, embarrassed, incompetent,” a “filthy flamingo” who saw “no important differences…between walking and standing still” (pp. 40-43)
  • Roland Weary, another child but a warped, sadistic one, who mocks Billy and torments him with talk of his brass knuckles and the blood-gutter on his ten-inch knife (pp. 44-47)
  • After their capture, Weary’s feet shredded by forced march in clogs (p. 70), splattered with “snot and blutwurst and tobacco juice” coming from a drunken German soldier (p. 82)
  • The crazed patriot colonel, “Wild Bob,” whose “lungs rattled like greasy paper bags” (pp. 84-85)
  • The grossly over-crowded, poorly ventilated, freezing train cars used to transport Billy, Weary, Wild Bob, and other prisoners to work camps (p. 90)

“Do you see Billy’s time-travel, then, as a way to escape an absurd, intolerable reality?” I asked.  In response, students found some evidence for this view: Billy’s travel to his successful optometry practice (p. 73), Billy riding in his Cadillac El Dorado (p. 72), his election as president of the Lions Club (p. 63).  “But does other evidence,” I asked, “undercut this view of time-travel as pleasurable escapism?”  Just as quickly, this question generated evidence of Billy traveling from the war to other horrible moments: his father throwing little Billy in the pool and telling him to “damn well swim” or sink (p. 55), his mother’s demented confusion (p. 56), the execution of Private Slovik (p. 57), the plane crash (p. 31).

Artist: Wiley Smith. Digital media collage, July 6, 2007. (Source: http://www.teachmix.com/litstudio128/)

All this suffering before, during, and after the war, I noted, makes Billy question his own stability, the condition of “his mind in general,” for he “tried to remember how old he was, couldn’t.  He tried to remember what year it was.  He couldn’t remember that, either” (p. 71).  “But do you see any evidence of sanity in Billy’s responses to the absurdity and violence that inform most of his moments?” I asked.  Silence followed.  I tried again: “What do we often see Billy doing, even in moments of comfort and prosperity?”  Blerta responded, saying that she finds sanity in these key quotations: “Every so often, for no apparent reason, Billy Pilgrim would find himself weeping….Sleep would not come.  Tears came instead” (pp. 78, 79).  Praising her insight, I asked the class if they could think of a more reasonable response to the horrors that Vonnegut has forced us to see.

With the period ending, I asked the class to complete the novel for the next session. I also asked them to choose one of the overlapping subjects I had written on the board and to write a substantial journal reflection, at least one page, focusing on chapters 4-9:

  • Further evidence of the horrors and absurdities of war
  • The decadence of twentieth-century culture
  • Further evidence of Billy’s insanity/sanity
  • Reasons for Faulknerian hope

The Last Kosovo Serb Won’t Leave

March 4, 2012

Cover of Southworth's The Last Kosovo Serb Won't Leave

Cover of Southworth's The Last Kosovo Serb Won't Leave

Susan Southworth’s 2007 novel uncovers, as the title promises, the horrors that always transpire whenever one people, usually in the name of liberty, redefines another people as objects, a reclassification that characterizes ethnic cleansing as patriotism.  But this beautifully written novel does so much more.  Peeling back the labels resulting from centuries of warfare and hate, Southworth shows us the fears, yes, but also the dignity and nobility of Others, a revelation that should inspire us all even as we weep for their pain.

Map of Kosovo

By end of the novel, we follow Donald, a retired American linguist, into southwest Kosovaran town Prizren, where the Kosova Liberation Army celebrates its 1999 triumph over the Serbs, a victory made possible by NATO bombing.  Absent from Prizren for a month, Donald expects to find what he left five weeks before: his Turkish friend and fellow linguist Bayram, with whom Donald can share his experiences living with Serbian peasants and resume their discussion of the Albanian language and culture.

Instead, he finds Bayram’s house trashed and valuable manuscripts scattered all over the grounds, acts of the new owner, an army thug.  Bayram himself Donald finds in a make-shift jail, cuffed and beaten, lying on a floor littered with feces and surrounded by walls splattered with other victims’ blood (100-108).  Though beaten himself, Donald escapes the Kosovaran violence via Macedonia, but not before witnessing Serbs shot in the street (120).  In the final chapter, the narrator shows us the fate of the Serbian peasants that had welcomed Donald: Petar has been beheaded, and his wife Leposava wonders off in a daze, looking for the “home”—their cabin and their country—now a “bloody mosaic,” the work of soldiers, not much more than boys, intoxicated by liberty and by a culture of retribution and guns (122).

Before this bloody ending, however, primarily through Donald’s eyes, we learn to see Albanians, Turks, and Serbs not as oppressors or victims but as human beings worthy of our understanding and respect.  Through Donald, for instance, we learn to revere the ancient Albanian language and culture (33), and that respect helps us understand how Donald can look at an angry Albanian soldier and see a scared boy, a “sweet-faced teenager” (104) with baggy fatigues on his “skinny frame” (100).  Through Donald we also learn to relish coffee, dates, water pipes, baths—all things Turkish, especially his courteous friend Bayram (32-40).

Serbian Gusle & Bow

Through Donald we learn as well to respect Serbs who “won’t leave.”  Bogdan the Serbian policeman, for example, earns that respect by risking his life daily helping peasants to steer clear of the Liberation Army (5-15, 88-96), as does the young Serbian mountain man by hiding Donald, suspected of being an enemy courier (56-59).  Through Donald’s month-long sojourn with the Serbian farmer and his wife, we also come to admire Petar and Leposava, their spiritual intimacy with the land, their domestic harmony and peace, their generosity.  Revering their American guest, they feed him hearty bean soup, fresh eggs, and oatmeal cakes; they teach him to hoe the garden and to trap rabbits for supper; they show him how to bathe in the rain-water, how to dance with abandon, how to smell the seasons and fish in the stream (64-86).  They also share with Donald their Serbian epic poems, accompanied by Petar’s gusle, a one-string instrument that can come to life “like a snake” (83) under Petar’s bow and moan “like a sad wind” (77).  All Serbs, Petar sighs, “have too much history,” and he relates to Donald their own stories of grief over a grandfather lost in the war with Bulgaria, over an infant son who should not have died (80-83).

Possessed of these histories, we can no longer vilify oppressors and count victims; we can only acknowledge human beings and cry for the Balkans.

The Battle of Kosova

February 25, 2012

Battle of Kosovo, 1389, by Adam Stefanovic, 1870

Battle of Kosovo, 1389, by Adam Stefanovic, 1870 (Source: Wikipedia--click to view)

In 1389, the Turkish army defeated the Serbian army at the Battle of Kosovo (Serbian spelling); blackbirds feasted on the carrion (Pettifer, James. Albania and Kosovo: Blue Guide, 3rded. New York: Norton, 2001, 309).

Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare focuses on this battle in his Elegy for Kosovo, where he recounts the long history of “the Serbs cursing the Albanians and the Albanians cursing the Serbs”; he also laments more than once that “we ourselves have brought this disaster on our heads, my brother!  We have been fighting and slaughtering each other for so many years over Kosovo, and now Kosovo has fallen to others” (68).

Cover for Elegy for Kosovo

Cover for Kadare's Elegy for Kosovo

The narrator, of course, refers to this fourteenth-century battle on the Plain of the Blackbirds (Elsie, RobertA Dictionary of Albanian Religion, Mythology, and Folk Culture. NY: New York University Press, 2001, 122), but Kadare alludes to a struggle that has continued into his own time, as evinced in 1989, 600 years after the Ottomans crushed the Serbs, when Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević, standing on the same Field of the Blackbirds, urged Serbs to resist, with violence if necessary, what he called the Albanian aggression in Kosovo (Kearney, Philip.  Under the Blue Flag: My Mission in Kosovo.  Beverley Hills: Phoenix Books, 2008, 66-69).

The Battle of Kosova, 1389

The Battle of Kosova, 1389, old Russian miniature (Source: Wikipedia--click to view)

In view of the parade and celebration here in Pristina on Friday, February 17—the fourth Independence Day for Kosova—I try not to despair over the vision painted by Kadare, especially because talks continue in Belgrade, where the Serbian government, hoping for EU status, inches toward recognizing the independence of Kosova, its former province.  Still, I can’t shake Kadare’s elegiac mood, perhaps because Serbs living in northern Kosova just voted 97% against recognizing Kosova’s independence from Serbia, a vote that renders prophetic Edith Durham’s remark in High Albania over a century ago: “the real policy of Serb and Albanian should be to unite and keep the foreign intruders from the Balkan Peninsula.  But this will never be” (276).

The poem below reflects this mood.  Though it begins domestically, it ends on the same Field of Blackbirds, where it tries to honor both Albanians and Serbs and to lament their shared pain.

Pigeons on my sill

Pigeons on my sill

Pigeons and Blackbirds

 Each dawn they perch on my sill, grumbling and

 Gray, iced, unpreened, like old men swaddled in

 Great coats, huddled and waiting for spring.  Then

 They spy my porch, littered with crusts, seeded

 And brown, manna torn from my loaf.  Swooping

 Down, beaking the prize, they jack their tails and

 Strut like victors.  Then blackbirds screech attack,

 Driving my guests from the feast, tearing the

 Bread like flesh they plucked from the Serbian

 Plain, then circled the Field for six hundred

 Years, ravenous still, always hot to gorge.

Under the Blue Flag: My Mission in Kosovo

February 16, 2012

Cover of Under the Blue Flag: My Mission in Kosovo

Cover of Under the Blue Flag: My Mission in Kosovo

In 2001, when assistant district attorney Philip Kearney left San Francisco for Kosova, he found himself driven by generous motives: he wanted to help “rebuild” this former Serbian province shattered by a decade of ethnic warfare (4). He would do that rebuilding “under the blue flag” of the UN, serving as a prosecutor of war criminals. But early in his brilliant book bearing the title above, Kearney acknowledges that his selfless wish to help heal the Balkans rooted in personal needs: his mission would help him to squelch the “feeling” that his life “was half over” yet he had not made his “mark” (2). He would fill the “hole” in his life, then, by helping Kosova restore the rule of law.

Early on, Kearney’s mission filled that hole, giving him a sense of “vigor and purpose” that he “hadn’t felt in years” (21). Yet after a year of service in Kosova, where Kearney found the justice system truly in “tatters” (14), one might have forgiven him had he returned to the comforts of San Francisco and written a judgmental book about the cowardice of some Kosovarans who won’t bear witness against murderers and rapists (84), and about the incorrigible corruption of some police and judges: “the same people who were supposed to be upholding the law were the people I needed to go after” (197).

But instead of complaining at home, Keaney stayed to pursue his mission, for the Balkans “had gotten into [his] blood” (224). Having lost himself in Kosovaran stories of suffering and endurance, of courage that sometimes overcomes terror, Kearney no longer had time to worry about making a mark.

Mesmerized by Kosovaran stories, Kearney quickly discovered the hatred—“still very real and still very alive”—that threads through both Albanian and Serbian narratives (39). Those hatreds, now and always, have made “retributive murder…commonplace” in the Balkans, and Kearney found in Kosova “no justice system to reign in the violence” (45). With no rule of law, either during or after the war, Kearney heard stories of Serbian death camps, where Albanian women suffered beatings and rapes daily (159), and of raids on Albanian homes, where rapes in front of family members preceded the lootings (108). Kearney also heard stories of Albanian retribution; one such case involved an Albanian with an AK-47 slaughtering a dozen Serbs, including a four-year-old boy, in front of a store (56). “Nobody here,” Kearney concludes, “has clean hands” (226).

To work toward ending this cycle of hatred and vengeance, Kearney used his Kosovaran courtroom to persuade both sides that “justice had to be blind—especially to ethnicity” (243). Sharing the UN’s commitment to “conquer ancient tribalism and replace it with the rule of law” (256), Kearney argued passionately that atrocities “committed either by military winners or losers” must be prosecuted by one high standard of human conduct, especially when committed “against the civilian population” (257, 259).

Amazingly, Kearney and his legal team won convictions against both Serbs and Albanians. Predictably, however, set-backs followed, like the acquittal of a Serb Kearney thought he had put away (268), and then the 2005 Supreme Court decision that “with the stroke of a pen” reversed “convictions we had fought so hard to achieve” (282). Yet even such reversals, Kearney hopes, persuades Serbs that international tribunals can be fair to “both sides of the conflict” (268).

Looking back on his mission, Kearney stresses two key lessons he hopes that we all take from his narrative: that “good governance takes time,” and that “our need to engage actively in the broader world” remains “stronger than ever” (294, 295).

Additional Links about Kearney

Radio interview with Philip Kearney and Verena Knaus, Here On Earth: Radio Without Borders, Wisconsin Public Radio, February 17, 2009

Interview with Philip Kearney, San Francisco Chronicle, March 1, 2009

Philip Kearney, Richard Reeves*, and Geoffrey Robinson^, Rising Above Oppression, Panel Discussion at Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, April 24, 2010

*Richard Reeves, Daring Young Men: The Heroism and Triumph of the Berlin
 Airlift - June 1948 - May 1949 (Simon & Schuster; January 5, 2010)

^Geoffrey Robinson, "If You Leave Us Here, We Will Die": How Genocide
 Was Stopped in East Timor (Princeton University Press; November 16,
2009)

The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo

February 15, 2012

Cover of The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo

Cover of The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo

Nine years have passed since Paula Huntley published her superb memoir, The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo.  Narrated in journal format, Huntley’s book records her experiences in 2000-2001, just one year after NATO troops drove Serbian forces out of Kosova.   Naturally, after a decade of civil war, most Kosovarans had suffered all the horrors that go with urban warfare and displacement, and when the shooting stopped, many Kosovarans found themselves homeless and jobless, and everyone found that the educational and legal systems had suffered the same battering.  So when Paula Huntley and Ed Villmoare chose to come to Pristina, they did not come as mere observers.  Instead, they came to help, Paula by teaching English as a second language to Albanian students, Ed by working through the American Bar Association to help Kosova to rebuild its legal system.

Paula Huntley

Paula Huntley, author of The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo (Source: Ms. Huntley's website--click image to view)

Having just re-read this inspiring book, I must applaud the way Paula and Ed came to help.  Eschewing know-it-all posturing, they couched their offer to help in compassion for those who had suffered so much and in full awareness of their own limitations.  Describing Ed’s need to “do something” in response to the wide-spread agony, Paula records her doubt that “Ed really believes he can do anything of great significance here.  He is a man of few illusions.  But he is also a man of character and compassion.  He can’t just do nothing” (29).  Similarly, three months into her teaching, Paula wonders if she has “really [done] anything to help” (129).

Ed Villmoare, Paula Huntley's husband

Ed Villmoare, Paula Huntley's husband (Source: Ms. Huntley's website--click image to view)

They also came to help as partners and peers with the Kosovarans, fully expecting to learn as much as they teach and to receive as much as they give.  This respectful stance, their doubts about effectiveness notwithstanding, earned Huntley and Villmoare the trust they would need to help Kosovarans build a future on a foundation of justice and learning

We can see that earned trust in the stories that Kosovarans come to share with Paula and Ed.  In working with his legal assistant Blerta, for instance, Ed hears the story of her mother’s gang-rape, a war crime that has silenced her mother permanently (179).  Similarly, in teaching stories such as Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” Paula engages Ermina and other students in eager discussions of marriage as a relationship shared by “equal partners,” not by a jailer-husband and his prisoner-wife, too often the case, says Ermina, in Pristina (183).

By starting her book club in her Pristina home, Paula also used Ernest Hemingway’s stories to generate more discussions on the power of language to assert human dignity and to effect positive change for Kosova.  In reading Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, for example, Paula and her student-guests reflected on the old man’s wisdom: “It is better to be lucky.  But I would rather be exact.  Then when luck comes you are ready.”  Naturally, this quote led to discussion of the old man’s tremendous suffering as he battles the great fish, then, thanks to the sharks, his failure to bring the great fish to the dock.  But once again, the old man’s words—“a man can be destroyed but not defeated”—helped her students to realize that the old man had not been defeated, that, in Paula’s words, he had “won self-respect and the renewed respect of the villagers.  He maintained his dignity and showed courage in the face of overwhelming adversity” (167).

First meeting of The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo

First meeting of The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo (Source: Ms. Huntley's website--click image to view)

With such courage placed within reach through language, Paula’s students began to think of “overcoming” their Kosovaran  “adversity” as a realistic goal, particularly if, like the old man, they became “ready,” a condition made possible by education and a willingness to use their “new words” (204).  Without these new words to “express their fears, frustrations, angers, desires, and ambitions in ways other than violence,” Paula concludes, Kosovarans can have no hope for the future (150).  Neither can we.

“To Your Own Blood”

February 2, 2012

The bitter cold continues in Pristina, and the snow has returned, though so far just flurries, no new drifts. I did face the elements long enough to get a haircut (which, alas, didn’t take long) and to buy more time for my local cell phone.

Serbian Empire 1355 AD

Serbian Empire 1355 AD (Source: Wikipedia--click image to view)

The rest of my day took place inside, where I continue to enjoy preparing for my American lit class. As I prepared a background lecture on psychoanalytic theory as a critical preface to Faulkner’s “Barn Burning,” I pondered several parallels between Faulkner’s 1938 tale and the current situation in Kosova. Though independent just four years, Kosova has always been cultural hub, not just in the old Yugoslavia but also in the ancient Balkans, a land where blood feuds have always continued because patriots on all sides, like Faulkner’s Abner Snopes, had and have a “ferocious conviction in the rightness of [their] own actions.” Of course, Snopes lays no claim to patriotism, having ‘served’—as a horse-thief—both the Federals and Confederates in the American Civil War. Still, Snopes feels justified in burning barns of rich white men like Major de Spain because his “wolflike independence” tells him that he has been unfairly labeled ‘trash’ and barred from wealth and power, the ‘phallus’ of American culture.

Former Yugoslavia

Former Yugoslavia (Source: Wikipedia--click image to view)

Unfortunately for pre-adolescent Sarty, his father Abner’s strong character yields only destruction and therefore only fear for the boy, a fear as strong as the smell of cheese that fills the store where Abner, at the beginning of the story, stands trial, again, for burning a barn. A good Jungian, Sarty understands “the old fierce pull of blood” and the myth of fire that informs his clan’s survival; he therefore will lie if he must to defend his father. Sarty will also fight men twice his size who shout “barn burner” at his father as they leave the courtroom store, with Abner free again, owing to lack of evidence, to burn more barns, more symbols of the phallic power he has always lacked.

Yet Sarty, just like many Kosovarans, longs to escape the cycle of violence, longs for his father’s reformation, so that he can love him without fear. Suspecting Sarty’s disloyalty, Snopes beats his son, teaching him that being a man means sticking “to your own blood,” not cow-towing (as Freud might say) to his “superego,” the internalized values of justice that make Sarty hope his father can “change…from what maybe he couldn’t help but be.”

But Snopes, indeed, cannot change, as he proves when he sets out to burn the barn of his new employer, Major de Spain. When Sarty breaks free from his mother’s restraining arms, he knows that he must betray his father to de Spain, that he must betray him to save him. After the betrayal, as he runs away, Sarty hears repeated shots in the distance, knowing then that his intent has back-fired, that he has enabled the killing of “Pap…Pap…Father.”

Kosovo Today

Kosovo today (Source: Wikipedia--click image to view)

Such names underscore Sarty’s love for his father, a man who he still believes fought in the cavalry under Colonel Sartoris. Yet he does his mourning on the run and does not “look back,” knowing the direction of freedom and peace.

While it may seem a stretch to make a Balkans allegory out of Faulkner’s post-Civil War story, the parallels seem compelling, at least as I sit here in Kosova, where fidelity to blood has assured its continued spilling. Yet an equally important difference stands out: Sarty did not look back; the Balkans must.

The Balkans

The Balkans (Source: Wikipedia--click image to view)