Wednesday, April 07, 2004

The Children's Crusade

On February 7th I linked to an interview with Kurt Vonnegut and mentioned that he was the author of Slaughterhouse-Five. From the brief mention tinLizzy checked out the audio book from the library and gave it a "read." I have never read the book but have always meant to, and inspired by tinLizzy's reading, I checked it out from my library in book form. And I read. And I liked. Slaughterhouse-Five is an anti-war book, a good book to read considering the state of world affairs. And for an anti-war book it is frequently funny. The humor stems from the main character, Billy Pilgrim, and his mental illness, a result of being a prisoner of war during World War II. This is not to say that mental illness is funny, but in this case it is meant to provide relief from the horror of war. But the humor is also tinged with sadness because the reader is sane and knows exactly what it happening. Billy's mental illness takes the form of time traveling as he calls it. One minute he is at a party in 1960 and the next he is one of one hundred Americans held in slaughterhouse-five in the city of Dresden, 1945. Billy also believes that he was taken by the Tralfamadorians to their planet and kept for years on display in a zoo there. The reason no one ever realized he was gone is because the Tralfamadorians know how to time travel and they were able to return him to Earth seemingly seconds from when he left. Billy was a chaplain's assistant during WW II and shortly after he arrived for the war, he found himself behind German lines, lost and in company with three others who had survived the onslaught. It is during their wandering through the woods trying to avoid the enemy, that Billy first began time traveling. Eventually he is caught, ends up in Dresden, and is one of the few who survive the fire bombing of that city. The book's subtitle, The Children's Crusade a Duty-Dance with Death, is a reminder of who it is that fights wars: "We had forgotten that wars are fought by babies. When I saw those freshly shaved faces, it was a shock. 'My God, my God--' I said to myself, 'It's the Children's Crusade.'" It is no surprise that eighteen year-old Billy learns how to time travel during the war. Any other place would be better than there, even a zoo on Tralfamadore. The wonder here is that more people don't end up like Billy after experiencing war. While on Tralfamadore, Billy assumes that they have figured life out and have evolved beyond war, tells his keeper what a peaceful planet they have. The Tralfamadorian replies:

"Today we do. On other days we have wars as horrible as any you've ever seen or read about. There isn't anything we can do about them, so we simply don't look at them. We ignore them. We spend eternity looking at pleasant moments--like today at the zoo. Isn't this a nice moment?" "Yes." "That's one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones." "Um," said Billy Pilgrim.
Of course it is easy to ignore a war if you aren't the one fighting it, or if your child or brother or sister is not being shot at. As long as the fighting stays far away, in a country across the ocean and no one we know personally is fighting in it, it is easy to look at the pleasant moments. It is also very easy to say there is nothing that can be done to stop the war or to have kept the war from happening in the first place. It becomes clear after a while that in spite of the Tralfamadorians being from another planet, they are not so alien after all. On a funny side note in the book, Billy decides at one point that he has to tell people about the Tralfamadorians. He manages to get himself on a radio show with several literary critics for one of which he was mistaken. The discussion was whether or not the novel was dead. Here's an excerpt:
One of them said that it would be a nice time to bury the novel, now that a Virginian, one hundred years after Appomattox, had written Uncle Tom's Cabin. Another one said that people couldn't read well enough anymore to turn print into exciting situations in their skulls, so that authors had to do what Norman Mailer did, which was to perform in public what he had written. The master of ceremonies asked people to say what they thought the function of the novel might be in modern society, and one critic said, "To provide touches of color in rooms with all-white walls." Another one said, "To describe blow-jobs artistically." Another one said, "To teach wives of junior executives what to buy next and how to act in a French restaurant."
And, if I may be so bold to say, to provide a mirror for ourselves and to help us remember.