“So it goes.”

Recently, I read Kurt Vonnegut for the very first time. He’s a writer I’d been meaning to check out for ages, after enjoying little quotes from him here and there, so I bought myself a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five (arguably his most famous book). Basically, my reading experience was an embodiment of the cliché phrase- I couldn’t put it down. From beginning to end, I didn’t tear my eyes away. Even once I had finished, I returned to some of my favourite passages for an indulgent re-read.

GERMANY KURT VONNEGUT
Kurt Vonnegut

I adore this book. I love everything it stands for and how much humanity it captures using such sparse words. Despite the violent subject matter, Vonnegut still manages to reveal the gentle beauty and significance of innocence. I honestly did not expect to fall in love with this book as much as I did. How he manages to insert such power into his rather colloquial writing style is unbelievable.

My awe was obtained during a very early chapter and it only expanded as I carried on reading. (Something about the writing actually felt reminiscent of Hemingway- another author I admire beyond words. I think it’s the way both men convey such enormous ideas with such simplicity. The relationship they create with the reader is a human-to-human one, rather than the reader being conscious of the fact they’re a reader, if that makes sense.)

It wasn’t the writing alone that entranced me, though; the story itself is remarkably beautiful. (And yes, I am aware of the fact I’ve just used a semi-colon, which Vonnegut fully disapproves of. He said- “All they do is show you’ve been to college.” That’s probably the one thing I don’t agree with him on.)

The character of Billy Pilgrim is the central focus of Slaughterhouse-Five. He is the kind of guy that breaks your heart with his immaturity. Billy’s entire life is outside of his control. He’s sent to war and during that time witnesses a vast array of traumas, unable to change any of it. Death pours over every aspect of his life. Even after the war,  sadness has a way of following him. He becomes the only survivor of a plane crash that kills every other passenger, including his Father-in-Law. On top of this, his wife dies of carbon-monoxide poisoning. This is partly as a result of her obsessive love for him.

Billy is also captured by aliens. Although, this could just as easily  have been a delusion considering the fact he has an obvious mental illness. Regardless, the situation leaves him helpless. As always…

For me, one of the parts I found the most touching was the portrayal of free will. Time is presented as non-linear. Everything that has already happened is still happening and Billy can visit a random event in his life at any given moment- but it occurs without his consent. Time has no structure, exactly like the chronology of the book, which is almost a representation of Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence”. This portrayal of time raises an important thought- are we all the same as Billy? We don’t actually have much time, because time has us. We can’t tell it to slow down or speed up. Generally, we are time’s subjects and it can do with us as it pleases. Therefore, Slaughterhouse-Five poses the question: is free will nothing more than a mere illusion? If the answer is yes, then we are all like Billy. Little leaves blown by the wind with absolutely no idea which direction we’re going in. However, Vonnegut is not entirely pessimistic in his concepts. He does not abolish the possibility of free will, rather he tries to wake his readers up- as though freedom can be attained. Hopefully, inspiring our courage to break free from whatever chains our lives are constricted by.

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Obviously, this was not the only thing about the book that moved me deeply. There were many instances in which I clutched the paperback to my chest, desperate not to move onto the next page in fear of finishing such a masterpiece. I wanted to stay in Vonnegut’s mind forever, or at least longer than 170-something pages. Perhaps my favourite aspect of the book  was the relationship between Billy and his wife -Valencia. It wasn’t a conventional marriage to say the least, but by far one of the most fascinating dynamics I’ve read between two characters in a long while. During and after the war, Billy’s mental health begins to spiral downwards. He loses his mind. This, the narrator suggests, is why he agrees to marry Valencia in the first place. She cries at one point after they sleep together, as she used to believe no one would ever marry her and now her happiness with Billy is overwhelming. She’s described as overweight and this is something that constantly makes her feel insecure. It even causes her to tell Billy that she’ll lose weight for him, to which he replies that he likes her the way she is.

Throughout the whole book, Valencia is utterly in love . She dotes on Billy but given his mental health issues, he remains unable to communicate emotionally. Sometimes he comes across as distant. Still, this doesn’t prevent us from feeling their unorthodox love burst out of the pages. I had a tear in my eye when Valencia was tragically killed from carbon monoxide poisoning. Even her death is a result of her love. After Billy’s plane crash, she rushes to the hospital in such frantic terror that she crashes and triggers a fault in her car. She couldn’t concentrate on the road due to her emotional state at her husband’s hospitalisation.

A prevalent anti-war theme is a vital part of the book as well. Whenever the subject of death is mentioned or referenced, Vonnegut uses the three word sentence “So it goes.” I’m sure I read in another review that “So it goes” is mentioned 105 times in the book. What this sentence does is bring to attention the ultimate tragedy of war- death becomes a means to an end. Death shouldn’t be dismissed; it should be mournful, and people should grieve it, but in war there seems to be an indifferent attitude. It’s something along the lines of “So it goes”. Governments don’t care about the loss of life, about the millions of young men who fight with such bravery and then suffer for the rest of their lives with the memories. As long as the jobs done, nobody seems to care. And that’s what Vonnegut tries to show us. He makes us aware of how terrifying war really is, how sorrowful the long-term consequences can be. There is nothing glamorous about it at all. This is stated in the first chapter and it comes to a head in the final line of the book. The last word is the incoherent tweet of a bird. It happens immediately after the war is finished. The main interpretation of this is that nothing can be said. War is such a devastating subject that there simply are no words for it. Innocent people dead. Cities destroyed. Minds made insane. Children without parents, parents without children, men without wives, women without husbands. War ruins lives and so arbitrarily that one can only weep. This futility is reflected through the execution of a soldier for stealing  a teapot in the book’s climax. Truthfully, Vonnegut is a genius, using these stark contrasts to illuminate deeper connotations!

Everybody could do with reading this book. It whisks you away from the first page and doesn’t let you go until the last. I was reluctant to finish it and today I gladly discovered that a film adaption exists from the 70’s. I can’t wait to see if the film is up to scratch with the masterful book. Vonnegut himself was very fond. He said: “I drool and cackle every time I watch that, because it is so harmonious with what I felt when I wrote the book.” I hope I feel the same, because I really need to return to the Slaughterhouse-Five universe.

The English Patient

We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves. I wish for all this to be marked on my body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography- to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience. All I desired was to walk on an earth without maps. 

I carried Katherine Clifton into the desert, where there is the communal book of moonlight. We were among the rumour of wells. In the palace of winds.

The English Patient,  Part IX- The Cave of Swimmers,
By Michael Ondaatje

I have read countless books that I’ve loved, but I don’t think any have ever been as affecting as Ondaatje’s The English Patient. From the first few lines I was hooked on the serene quality of his prose, and how every chapter was almost like a poem or a song. He has a way with words that I’ve never seen before. It’s the one book I always go back to, even if it’s just to read one or two lines.

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The story begins in an Italian villa, a few days after the Second World War is over. A young Nurse- Hana- resides there while caring for a mysterious patient, burned beyond recognition. They are joined in time by Caravaggio- a thief who has questions for the patient, and also an Indian sapper named Kip. Gradually, Ondaatje reveals dual narratives that beautifully intertwine. As we read the love unfolding between Hana and Kip, the patient drifts into deep memories of an affair he had before the war- that ultimately led to his current, disfigured state.

I feel like everybody should give this book a go. Even a few passages contain more allure and imagery than most books achieve with thousands of lines. The Guardian called Ondaatje after this book was released “one of the most innovative and liberating writers of our time.” They are 100% right! It’s more than just a tale of romance and war. The message runs deeper, touching on subjects such as gender, nationalism, colonialism, and religion. It is not only centred on battles in war, battles for affection, battles of wits- the main struggle depicted in the book is the battle of people against the limitations of society and life. The ideas presented are so human. One passage reads- “The desert could not be claimed or owned–it was a piece of cloth carried by winds, never held down by stones, and given a hundred shifting names… Its caravans, those strange rambling feasts and cultures, left nothing behind, not an ember. All of us, even those with European homes and children in the distance, wished to remove the clothing of our countries. It was a place of faith. We disappeared into landscape.” This small extract represents the major theme running throughout the work- that ultimately, we are all exactly the same, and it is only the lines drawn on maps that breeds an idea of difference. Ondaatje uses the desert as a place where nationality does not matter. The clothes of your country are removed and every character stands there identical in their humanness. They all feel and think and want. Maps are the only things causing separation… or, an illusion of separation.

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He uses words as though they are waves, coming and going at the start and end of every page. You can feel the stifling heat of the desert and the sweat running down their necks, the sand getting caught on their flaming cheeks, the dreamy haziness of the villa as both life and death slowly seep into the cracks between bricks. Once read, this book is definitely not forgotten.