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.

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The Bridge on the Drina

February 29, 2012

Ivo Andrić, 1961

Ivo Andrić, 1961 (Source: Wikipedia--click to view)

Yugoslavian diplomat Ivo Andrić died in 1975, but Bosnia and the Balkans honor him, as does the world, not only for his diplomacy but also for his fiction, particularly The Bridge on the Drina, which won him the Nobel Prize in 1961.

Set in Andrić’s native Bosnia, this historical novel spans three hundred years, beginning with the new wave of Ottomans in the late sixteenth century and ending with 1914 and the start of World War I, the life-time of the magnificent bridge that spanned the Drina River.  Covering this period with the precision of a scholar, Andrić narrates the parade of Turkish and Austrian powers that occupied this stunning mountainous region, but with the eye and heart of a poet Andrić populates this vast canvas with images of human beings so ordinary in their capacities for celebration and passion, so extraordinary in their capacities for brutality and courage.

Cover of The Bridge on the Drina

Cover of Andrić's The Bridge on the Drina

The novel begins with indelible images of the brutality that grows from the lust for power and land.  Though eventually a work of engineering art, its “eleven arches…perfect and wondrous in its beauty” (64), the bridge begins when a Turkish Vezir arrives and conscripts laborers, beating and even killing any man who resists, turning this town on the Drina “into a hell, a devil’s dance of incomprehensible works, of smoke, dust, shouts, and tumult” (29, 31).  Painfully aware that the bridge will benefit Turks, not Bosnians, workers grumble; some even plot to sabotage the bridge. Enraged by such covert resistance, the Vezir finds a scapegoat, a brave peasant who pays for his alleged sabotage by having his toenails torn from his feet, his chest wrapped in red-hot chains, and his anus pierced by a pike that runs out through the back of his neck.  Raised high on the emerging bridge for all would-be resisters to see, the impaled peasant “writhed convulsively” for hours before dying, just as the Vezir ordered (49).

We see the same brutality at the end of the novel, when World War I releases the “wild beast” inside us all that “does not dare to show itself until the barriers of law and custom have been removed” (282).  That beast obliterates this town and even its seemingly indestructible bridge, as a bomb planted on a pier causes it to “crumble away like a necklace; and once it began no one could hold it back” (313).  Perhaps the greatest cruelty, the survivors have no home, no place.

Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, Višegrad, Bosnia, 1900

Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, Višegrad, Bosnia, 1900 (Source: Wikipedia--click to view)

But between these bookends revealing our hearts of darkness, Andrić paints lighter hearts of those over these three centuries who take joy in simple pleasures, like fishing under the bridge (15) or meeting on the bridge to exchange flirtatious glances, to celebrate weddings, or to drink brandy and tell stories (19-21).

When William Faulkner accepted his Nobel Prize in Stockholm in 1950, he called on novelists not to paint portraits of despair; instead, he challenged writers to celebrate our strength, our ability not only to “endure” but to “prevail.”  As though accepting Faulkner’s charge, Andrić describes hearts capable not only of simple joys but also of endurance, as these Bosnians must suffer floods and droughts as well as invasions (76-79).  Following another Faulknerian challenge, to tell stories of the human heart “in conflict with itself,” Andrić weaves together numerous tales of such inner-conflict we can expect to find in any  century, such as Peter’s struggle with his addictive gambling (145-152); Fata’s torment over a marriage, having to obey her father or to obey her heart (104-112); or Zorka’s agony over two men, having to choose a good man who loves her but for whom she feels no love, or to wait for a lesser man indifferent to her passion (276-281).

Finally, Faulkner urged writers to uplift us with stories of human beings—however few—who show “compassion” for others and the willingness to “sacrifice” to relieve others’ pain.  Among several of Andrić’s characters who fit this description, Lotte stands tallest.  We meet her first in the middle of the novel, a beautiful young widow with “ivory white skin, black hair, smoldering eyes,” and a “free tongue,” and therefore enough brass to start a hotel in a patriarchal culture (177).  Far more than a shrewd business woman, Lotte serves as benefactress to many families, providing counseling and money for those whose lives have run amuck (180).  By the end of the novel, Lotte has “grown old.  Of her onetime beauty only traces remained” (257).  Unconcerned about her physical decline, Lotte worries instead about her ability to help others.  As the town has declined, Lotte’s once prosperous hotel has declined, too.  As a result, she suffers nightly over those in “hopeless poverty” that she can no longer relieve.  Though “tired” to the soul, Lotte still gives others what she has left, her sage counsel (262).  When we last see her, just before the bridge falls into the Drina, Lotte crosses bridge with a few other displaced old women—and with a “sickly child on a push-cart” (300).

Thanks to this Nobel Prize winner, then, no history of the Balkans can be complete that finds only cruelty in the human heart.

Ivo Andrić at Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, Višegrad, c. 1970?

Photo of Ivo Andrić at Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, Višegrad, Bosnia, c. 1970?; on display at his birthplace in Travnik, Bosnia and Herzegovina (Source: Wikipedia--click to view)

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.

Trip to Shkodra, Albania

February 8-10, 2012

On Wednesday, February 8, I boarded a minibus headed from Pristina to Tirana, Albania, where I met my dear friend Agim K., who accompanied me in another minibus to Shkodra, Albania, the site of my first Fulbright in 2003.   During the first six months of that year, I taught American lit and research strategies to sophomores at the University of Shkodra; while doing so, I lived in an upstairs apartment of Agim’s house.  He shared the lower floor with his wife Zushi and his then-18-year-old daughter Afrora.

Cover of Teaching American Literature at an East European University

Cover of Teaching American Literature at an East European University

I wrote a book about this experience in Shkodra.  Titled Teaching American Literature at an East European University: Explicating the Rhetoric of Liberty (Edwin Mellen Press, 2006), the book focuses primarily on the academic adventure of teaching American literature—its powerful narratives of liberty and slavery, of justice and oppression—to twenty-year olds who aspired to those liberties because they knew from their own and their families’ experiences what it meant to grow up under communist oppression and an educational system that privileged lecturing and scorned writing-to-learn.

But, as the preface explains, the real inspiration for the book came from my Albanian family.  Though relatively well-off now, the Ks endured tremendous hardships, as did most Albanians, during the communist years, 1944-1989, and during the hard economic times that followed.  In narrating his family’s struggles, Agim always asked, in tearful, despairing tones, “What is possible?” after describing the horrors of labor camps and suppressed faith.  In far more hearty tones, he asked the same question after outlining his hopes for the future, always keeping despair at bay with his mantra, “step-by-step,” his courageous Faulknerian conviction that he and his family will ‘not only endure but prevail.’

Naturally, thoughts of the Agim, Zushi, and Afrora filled my head and my heart as I rode with five other passengers for six hours through Kosova’s deep snow and then through Albania’s stunning northeastern mountains pictured, however inadequately, here.  After this (roughly) 250 mile trek, we found sun and no snow in Tirana, Albania’s capital (see photo).  After Agim and I met up, we took another van to Shkodra, about 70 miles to the north, almost to Montegro.

**Click on the first picture to scroll through the gallery in a larger format.

Though I had only two days to spend with them, we used the time well to reminisce about 2003 and to brag shamelessly about our families. They couldn’t hear enough about my wife Judy; our ‘kids,’ Heather, Anna, and Matt, our son-in-law Roy, our daughter-in-law Kristen; and our grandkids, Josh, Nate, Roy, and brand-new Ellie.  Returning the favor, Agim and Zushi told me at length about Afrora’s plans to marry Erjon, a young man in Vienna; they also described their up-coming trip to the United States to work and live near their son Andi, who will soon marry Ilma, the beautiful, dark-haired young woman pictured here, next to her lovely soon-to-be sister-in-law Afrora.  The other photo features Agim and Zushi, the smug parents.  Life is good.

**Click on the first picture to scroll through the gallery in a larger format.