Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Kurt Vonnegut's Backwards Movie

I am a slow reader, but Kurt Vonnegut's A Man Without a Country is to date the only book I have read all in a day. Kurt Vonnegut's innocent and quaintly humorous tone betrays a wit as sharp and piercing as an antibiotic syringe and this kept me rapt for an entire day. Expectations were therefore high before reading Vonnegut's most acclaimed novel, Slaugherhouse Five.

The novel figures on Modern Library and Time Magazine's lists of the 100 most significant English-language novels and the American Library Association's list of the 100 most frequently challenged books 1990-1999 (i.e. books requested for withdrawal from libraries). It is also known as one of the great anti-war novels, as it follows the protagonist Billy Pilgrim's experience of the Second World War, the bombing of Dresden and their results for Billy's subsequent civilian life. Vonnegut, who experienced the Dresden bombing, created this compelling argument against war halfway through his semi-autobiographic novel. The protagonist, many years after the war has become somewhat peculiar. He can't sleep, and goes into the kitchen.


Billy looked at the clock on the gas stove. He had an hour to kill before the saucer came. He went into the living room, swinging the bottle like a dinner bell, turned on the television. He came slightly unstuck in time, saw the late movie backwards, then forwards again. It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this:

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground., to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.

The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn't in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed.


If the significance of this passage eludes you, have no fear. The below illustration, accompanied by Kurt Vonnegut's reading of the passage succincly explains how contrary and illogical war is.

What do you think?

Do you think Vonnegut makes a compelling argument with this passage, or could it be read otherwise? Assuming it communicates an anti-war message, you agree with him and the way he presents it? Vonnegut is known for using short sentences meant for high reading speed rather than contemplation. Do you think this is a fitting style for discussing a topic as deep as war? Did the segment make you want to read more from Vonnegut?

Comments on The Tale of Sir Bob are always welcome! 

Sources: Vonnegut, Kurt: Slaugherhouse 5, London 2000, 60-61, pic, film, as given

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