Andreas Mertin reviews Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut.
So it goes. Billy Pilgrim is an optometrist from Ilium, New York. He has a successful practice, and his son-in-law is taking over the business as he retires. But that is not what makes him exceptional. He was enlisted in the U.S. army during WWII as an assistant army chaplain and survived the bombing of Dresden as a prisoner-of-war. And although that would make any man interesting, it is the fact that since his time in the war Billy has become “unstuck in time”, and believes he had been held in an alien zoo. Now we have a story. The aliens in question are Tralfamadorians, beings that resemble toilet plungers with a hand on top that possess their single eye and experience life in four dimensions, meaning they experience time–past, present, and future–simultaneously. They have chosen Billy to share this knowledge.
For the Tralfamadorians, no moment has ever past. No one is ever dead, as they were at some point in time alive, and thus, if time is simultaneous, they are simply alive in another point in time. All that is needed is to become “unstuck in time”. But it is not these truths, these small individual moments of potential joy and solace that take up Billy’s time. Instead, Billy’s experiences are less cosmic revelation than the repeated comedy of human errors. The follies, disasters, sorrows that make up human history and the story of a life are not distant memories, but living realities. It is Vonnegut’s mix of sorrow and humour, his ability to see the absurdity of life yet to sympathise with those experiencing it that give the novel its characteristic quality.
For Billy and the reader it becomes increasingly clear that the purpose of studying history is not to avoid its mistakes, but to be doomed to watch helplessly as others set about repeating them. So it goes.