1922 – 2007: Kurt Vonnegut

The Horror of the Firebombing of Dresden became ‘Slaughterhouse Five,’ his Iconic Novel of the Peace Movements in Both the United States and Europe

Memory is so short. When historian Jörg Friedrich’s recent study on the air war against Nazi Germany stirred intense debate, few people seemed to remember that its central theme – the firebombing of Dresden in February 1945 – had already received a masterful treatment thirty five years earlier, in Kurt Vonnegut’s remarkable and disturbing novel, Slaughterhouse Five.

Photo: Albion University

But memory can also go way back. The author Kurt Vonnegut jr., born 1922 in Indianapolis, belonged to “the best generation,” the men who fought “the last good war.” As a barely 23-year old American prisoner of war, he survived hell in Dresden – one of seven who did. He went back to the States to become a student of anthropology, a police reporter, a copywriter for the advertising department of General Electric, a car dealer, and a writer of somewhat successful short stories and novels. But the experience of war and senseless destruction never left him. It made him skeptical of all pathos, immune to the rhetoric of politicians. And it led him to write Slaughterhouse Five at the height of the Vietnam War.

The message was certainly clear. And it was not lost on concerned patriotic school boards and parents, who banned the book more often than most other critical voices, and in one incident, in a disgusting ironic twist, actually burned it. Vonnegut, however, was in step with his times; he became one of the heroes of the counterculture, at home as well as abroad, where his bestseller appeared in translated editions. In Germany, too, the country of his ancestors, Schlachthaus funf (subtitled oder der Kinderkreuzzug, the Children’s Crusade) was recognised as one of the great works of post-war American literature.

Vonnegut’s other books hardly received such wide acclaim, especially not abroad. At a superficial level, they may have been lost in translation. Frühstück für starke Männer, for example, just never rang the same bell as it did for generations of Americans, who recognised the slogan for Kellogg’s cornflakes, Breakfast of Champions. At second glance his work may not have conformed tidily enough to the canon of what “great” literature is supposed to be.

To the grand gestures, the epics that explain the whole world, he preferred the small form, the seemingly unrelated little twists and turns in storytelling. As was pointed out in a recent homage in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, he may have thus anticipated post-modernism, with its disregard for logical structures and coherent perspectives.

Not that Vonnegut cared for such labels. Unlike his more prominent (or flamboyant) peers like Norman Mailer, Philip Roth or John Updike, he remained somewhat of an outsider. But like them, he continued to observe and criticise the decaying mores and the increasing speed of life of his country.

At one point, he became so desperate with the current administration that he wished to have back the president of the Vietnam era: Nixon, he argued, was at least not as clueless and irresponsible as Bush Jr..

For his incorruptible stance as well as for his writing, he continued to be important for all at home and abroad who follow the current state of affairs with concern.

On April 11, Kurt Vonnegut died in New York..

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