Thursday, April 12, 2007

Schlachthof Fünf

Kurt Vonnegut, literary icon of those who came of age in the Vietnam era and after, died yesterday. I have several of his novels, tucked away in a box in one of my storage units. I read them decades ago, when I was in college or perhaps only recently out of it. I no longer remember the plots of his books (my poor memory for plot details has worsened with the passing years), except for bits of Slaughterhouse Five, his most famous novel. It portrays the Allied forces' firebombing of Dresden, Germany, during World War II. Over many years I've carried with me the despair and horror that pervaded the story, as the eponymal hero Billie Pilgrim watched Allied bombs drop on the beautiful city--site of Europe's loveliest Gothic cathedrals and home to a huge population. The hero of the book (like Vonnegut himself, who was a POW in Dresden during the actual event) hides from the bombs in Schlachthof Fünf (German for "Slaughterhouse Five").

Like Joseph Heller (Catch 22), Vonnegut wrote about WWII not to praise it or to illustrate the heroism of its participants, but to demonstrate the futility and agony of war. Slaughterhouse Five was both fuel and resource for the anti-war movement in the Sixties.

According to Max Hastings, by February 1945, attacks upon German cities had become largely irrelevant to the outcome of the war and the name of Dresden possessed a resonance for cultured people all over Europe — "the home of so much charm and beauty, a refuge for Trollope’s heroines, a landmark of the Grand Tour." He argues that the bombing of Dresden was the first time Allied populations questioned the military actions used to defeat the Nazis.

After Hurricane Katrina, when I saw the devastation in New Orleans, it reminded me of pictures I'd seen of the destroyed city of Dresden. It was heartbreaking...yet also left me hope, because I knew that much of Dresden has been restored--even the Frauenkirche, Dresden's most famous edifice, which was completely rebuilt and finished only a few years ago. If Dresden could come back from firebombing, I thought, surely New Orleans can come back from Katrina.

Of course, Dresden lost forever much of its most beautiful architecture, as well as thousands of its residents (estimates of 25,000-35,000). Ironically, Dresden too lies on either side of a river, in a flood plain, and is subject to flooding.

Back to the inspiration for this entry. There will be plenty of obituaries and eulogies describing Mr. Vonnegut, detailing his life, and critiquing his writing, so I shall add only: He is unarguably one of the greatest U.S. writers of the 20th century. Rest in peace, Kurt.

1 comment:

Charles Gramlich said...

People often think of Nagasaki and Hiroshima and forget the agony of Dresden. I was glad that Vonnegut used his talent to work against war. I respect his talent, although I was never a particularly big fan of his work from a literary standpoint.