From Dresden on the 50th Anniversary of ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’

DRESDEN, Germany — Last month, 74 years to the day since the bombers came, the late winter sky was gray as German tour guide Danilo Hommel called a halt before a short, dark green door in a large terracotta-roofed building that today forms part of an events and conference complex. One among several structures like it are laid out in neat rows in a bend of Germany’s River Elbe, two miles from Dresden’s historically reconstructed center.

Anonymous except for a plaque by its side reading “Schlachthof 5,” and underneath, in English, “Slaughterhouse Five,” it was an exit-way through which the tall, lean 22-year-old prisoner of war Kurt Vonnegut Jr. may have had to stoop to emerge into a scene that would cast a shadow over the rest of his life. In February 1945, after sheltering in a deep underground meat locker in the abattoir-turned-P.O.W. camp, he and other American soldiers captured at the Battle of the Bulge, before being shipped eastward by train, were confronted by a smoldering hellscape where the Saxon capital had stood, its baroque architecture until now pristinely untouched by the wrecking hand of war.

Claiming around 25,000 lives late in World War II, the Allied firebombing raids on Dresden whipped up an inferno so fierce it sucked the oxygen from all but the most subterranean of shelters and destroyed practically everything that would burn. Vonnegut would later compare the sound of bombs stomping across the earth overhead to the footsteps of giants. Put to work by his German captors disinterring corpses from the rubble, he would one day write with characteristic black comedy that the hideous task resembled “a terribly elaborate Easter egg hunt.”

After his liberation by the Russians and eventual return to the United States, the newspaper reporter, teacher and struggling novelist spent more than two decades privately processing and grappling with his Dresden memories, scrapping countless drafts as he attempted to knit his experiences into a story. It was only after summoning the outlandish sci-fi contrivance of making his protagonist Billy Pilgrim become “unstuck in time” — ricocheting through the past, present and future simultaneously and traveling into outer space in pursuit of perspective — that Vonnegut felt satisfied to turn in an almost implausibly slim manuscript for “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

Published 50 years ago this month, the book became his first best-seller and made 47-year-old Vonnegut a star. Weird, wise, moral, profane and profoundly human, it remains a countercultural classic and one of the most enduring antiwar novels of all time. Not to mention a salvational act of self-therapy by a man who likely suffered from what would today be recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

[ Read our original review of “Slaughterhouse-Five.” ]

For a book about surviving a massacre, “Slaughterhouse-Five” makes you laugh an unreasonable amount. Not least through the repetition of three short words that have inspired a thousand bad tattoos: “So it goes.”

Those words are “one of his clues to us that he had PTSD,” said Julia Whitehead, the founder and head of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library, over the phone from Vonnegut’s native city, Indianapolis. “He’s trying to figure out, ‘O.K., did something really horrible just happen? How am I going to deal with that?’”

From a bottle of champagne that’s lost its fizz to entire “corpse mines” in the lunar landscape of flattened Dresden and a fellow prisoner shot for scavenging a teapot, “Slaughterhouse-Five” is a book steeped in expiry, such that the author can only seem to summon a cry-laughing refrain every time another endpoint is reached. “So it goes” tolls bright and solemn 106 times throughout the book, cunningly conveying fatalism, stoicism, acceptance and stubborn continuity each time. “It was his way of coping,” Whitehead said. “And it’s kind of teaching us to keep going, when these things happen in our lives … to stop and say, ‘This is what it is, and I will keep going.’”

Vonnegut has said he based the novel’s protagonist, Pilgrim — the sweet but hapless Army chaplain’s assistant and future millionaire optometrist — on his comrade, Edward R. Crone Jr., who died on April 11, 1945, soon before the war’s end.

In 1969, when the novel was published, PTSD was a concept as alien as the four-dimensional beings who kidnap Pilgrim to the planet Tralfamadore. While the condition is widely known today, the term only entered medical doctrine after 1980. Whether he knew it or not, Vonnegut was improvising a self-help manual for psychic pain at a time when many young Americans needed it most.

Vonnegut’s youngest daughter, Nanette, remembers him and her “mother watching the news and him just losing his temper,” she said, recalling her parents watching TV dispatches from Vietnam when she was a teenager in the late 1960s. He would be “pointing at the screen saying, ‘The liars.’”

“He saw the numbers, how many dead,” she added, “that these kids were being conned, and sent to their deaths. And I do think probably it set a fire under him to have his say.”

Vonnegut was driven into his study time and again to fight his own internal battle, and at last complete a novel inextricably intertwined with the preservation of his soul. Nanette, who is a writer and artist herself, grew up intrigued by her father’s creative struggle. In language worthy of her father, she wrote in a 2012 essay that it was like “living with an elephant for 15 years that was trying to give birth to something twice its size.”

“I had a short time up until I was 14, 15, and I was witness to the writer at work,” she reflected, speaking from her home in Northampton, Mass. “The labor of it, and the up and down of it. It was like a manic thing. When there was a good day of writing and he nailed it, you could tell. And other days it was like, just, you know, so hard.”

The six Vonnegut children have complicated relationships with “Slaughterhouse-Five,” the vessel that whisked their father away to fame. Yet when Nanette reread it recently, “It just blew my mind,” she said. “It is a magical thing that he pulled off. I’m so proud of him that he delivered it. It’s a gift to the world.”

Nanette has happy memories of her father, even if she is certain that he suffered from PTSD, the symptoms of which — flashbacks, sleeplessness, dissociative episodes and sudden, inexplicable surges of emotion — he drew so vividly in Billy Pilgrim. “He was writing to save his own life,” Nanette said, “and in doing it I think he has saved a lot of lives.”

Over the course of 10 head-spinningly nonlinear chapters, Vonnegut’s darkest memories from Dresden refract through the prism of a brilliant and unconventional mind, like light filtered through a warped stained-glass window, scattering colorfully and unpredictably. The pain becomes wild, hilarious, beautiful.

His moving through time “seems to me a conspicuously therapeutic response to Dresden,” said Sidney Offit, an author who was good friends with Vonnegut later in life. “Because when you’re moving through time you’re trying to put it into a perspective,” Offit added. “And he was doing it through the individual details of one life. It obviously had an extraordinary appeal to readers.”

Offit, who is 90, recalled that Vonnegut, his former tennis and lunch buddy, often confided in him about his wartime trauma. Yet it was always with the same sense of irony and mischievousness as in his writing. “It’s a way of coping, humor,” Offit said.

Vonnegut died in 2007 at the age of 84, gone but destined to never be forgotten. His fame continued with books such as “Breakfast of Champions,” “Galápagos” and “Hocus Pocus.” The Tralfamadorians in “Slaughterhouse-Five” see lives laid out like strings of spaghetti, every second occurring side by side and always for eternity; by their philosophy death is but a “bad condition” in one’s final moment. In that clever disruption of logic lies perhaps the author’s most enduring masterstroke, a trick that in the mind’s eye has the power to pull bombs back up into the bellies of Lancasters and B-17s, return fat to the bones of starving P.O.W.s and let lives senselessly deleted be suddenly restored.

“It’s a genius device,” Offit said of his friend’s elastic contortions of time. “It has almost a spiritual or religious theme,” he laughed, “because it’s suggesting life everlasting. The future, the past, the present all blend. And none of them seem to have a real ending.”

With the bright sandstone structure of the stunning Church of Our Lady at its heart — leveled in 1945, left in ruins for decades, then rebuilt between 1994 and 2005 — the city of Dresden in late 2019 presented its own blend of the future, past and present. In the former slaughterhouse district, Hommel’s Kurt Vonnegut-themed tour of the city concluded with a descent into the bowels of Schlachthof 5. On a wall in the basement cloakroom — where hooks for coats and not animal carcasses hung from the ceiling — a light-box storytelling mural by artist Ruairi O’Brien depicted scenes and quotations from “Slaughterhouse-Five.” Surprisingly it’s the city’s only real monument to the novel.

As for the deep concrete meat locker where a young intelligence scout sheltered from the footsteps of giants? Filled in and built over during renovations years ago, it was gone. Returned to the earth, like so many former citizens of Dresden and everywhere. Vanished in that moment, and yet, if you think about it the Tralfamadorian way, still there forevermore in plenty of others past. So it goes.