Read from April 17th to 22nd 2015
Pillars of Salt
What you notice right away in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five or The Children’s Crusade. A Duty-dance with Death (which is by the way all in all a masterpiece of narrative construction) is the concentric structure: there is a story that leads to a book, there is the story of the book and the story within the book. These three concentric circles (if you wish you can name each of them with one of the three titles of the novel) are drawn by three narrators: the Author who lived to tell the story and the “me and I” narrators: one who tells the story of Bill Pilgrim in a discreet, maybe even unreliable way, and one who witnesses him only from the crowd of American prisoners and feels like asserting himself in front of the reader, too, in order to give credibility not only to facts but also to the main character.
The Author is Yon Yonson from Wisconsin, who fought in the WW2, and became a prisoner, and witnessed the destruction of Dresden, and wants to write a book about it and who is, at this point, an alter ego of Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who fought in the WW2, and became a prisoner, and witnessed the destruction of Dresden, and wrote a book (this one) about it. The Author’s voice dominates the beginning and the end of the book, framing the inside story in rough edges, that is, revealing what his story was before polishing it, in an amazing mixture of fiction and Metafiction, for Yon Yonson from Wisconsin is not only the Author but also the “I”, a character, with one foot, so to speak, outside his own novel and the other one inside.
As the Author responsible of the first circle (why should I think of Dante, you tell me) he speaks in the first person, apparently revealing the “why”s and the “how”s of the narrative. One very significant “how” describes the plot as a colorful drawing (not dissimilar to military drawings) on the back of a roll of wallpaper (other metaphor for Henry James’s hidden figure in the carpet?):
I used my daughter's crayons, a different color for each main character. One end of the wallpaper was the beginning of the story, and the other end was the end, and then there was all that middle part, which was the middle. And the blue line met the red line and then the yellow line, and the yellow line stopped because the character represented by the yellow line was dead. And so on. The destruction of Dresden was represented by a vertical band of orange cross-hatching, and all the lines that were still alive passed through it, came out the other side.
An interesting “why” refers to the second title, offering extensive information about children’s crusade on one hand and explaining it as a promise to a friend not to make-up war an episode, fought by mighty heroes, whereas it was a pitiful war fought by babies on the other hand.
The most significant “why”, however, concerns a statement that made many critics accuse Vonnegut of mock modesty, for it claims that the novel is a failure. But the statement has two parts and I quite don’t understand how could the second one be ignored:
This one is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt.
By identifying himself with Lot’s wife, the Author acknowledges not only the impossibility of not looking back, that is of ignoring his past, but also of making the others fully aware of its tragedy, despite all evocative skills, without petrifying them forever. And this could explain, at least partially, the frustration of some readers, who felt the tragedy of Dresden was not emphasized enough, that the tone of the novel is either disrespectful or plainly inaccurate for the subject. Maybe the most famous of these reproaches is Anthony Burgess’s, who accused the book of a Peter Pan complex that transformed the horror in fantasy.
But Slaughterhouse five is not a book about war, not strictly speaking. It is mainly a book about victims, about the non heroes (attention, none of them is truly an antihero) that live and die to star only in the statistics, and this is why the final dialogue is tremendously sad, despite its attempt to mockery. Finding a statistic of births and deaths, Yonson and his friend O’Hare learn that the number of the dead is always exceeded by number of newborn. And every newborn brings hope, oblivious that it has no control over its future:
On an average, 324,000 new babies are born into the world every day. During that same day, 10,000 persons, in an average, will have starved to death or died from malnutrition. So it goes. In addition, 123,000 persons will die for other reasons. So it goes. This leaves a net gain of about 191,000 each day in the world. The Population Reference Bureau predicts that the world's total population will double to 7,000,000,000 before the year 2000.
''I suppose they will all want dignity,'' I said.''I suppose,'' said O'Hare.
As for the story inside the story, the absurdity of Billy Pilgrim’s life is nothing less that the absurdity of life. He had his own glimpse into the abyss and lived to tell how the abyss stared back. He copes as he can with it, by browsing his past like a book, by visiting other planets, by becoming to realize that war and day-to-day life are peculiarly similar: that the marriage tent of his daughter is painted in the same orange black strips as the wagon that transported him and the other prisoners to Dresden; that the aliens that kidnapped him had the same reason for it that the Germans that captured him, that is no reason at all; that a slaughterhouse can provide a better shelter than his own house and so on. His adventures may be true or not, may be real or imaginary – this is not relevant because Billy himself, as the discreet “me” narrator reminds us, is a shadow, a meaningless being, forced to play his part by a mad author who warps fates as he likes it, never tiring to remind his puppets that their only duty is to die:
There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.
At this point, the Author, “me” and “I” become Billy and all of them wander restlessly either the surface of the Moon-Dresden, or the streets of Ilium-Wisconsin or the dome of Tralfamadore-Oz, depending on the time warp they happen to be in. This may be because, as Yon Yonson studied at the Anthropology Department of the University of Chicago, there is “absolutely no difference between anybody”, that is, their roles are always interchangeable in the Death minuet, and no shitting your brains out will ever change this:
An American near Billy wailed that he had excreted everything but his brains. Moments later he said, ''There they go, there they go.'' He meant his brains.
That was I. That was me. That was the author of this book.
And trying to change it will transform you in a pillar of salt anyway.