• Armageddon in Retrospect, Kurt Vonnegut. Berkley Trade. $15.00. 240 pp.
Kurt Vonnegut’s estate has released the author’s first posthumous collection of essays and short stories, Armageddon in Retrospect, with an introduction by Vonnegut’s son, Mark. Because this is the only book currently planned to punctuate the important writer’s career, one might have expected to find in it a broad sampling from the Vonnegut files. But this collection is designed around a single distinct focus: it’s a book about war. Every story and essay relates directly to this theme.
Why did the estate choose this distinct subject for the final book? Since 2003 Kurt Vonnegut had railed constantly—sometimes delicately, sometimes crudely—against his country’s war in Iraq, so this book fittingly represents at least one topical issue that was on the writer’s mind near the end of his life. But though George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld do take a few beatings here, the fiction spans as far back as the Norman Invasion, and the intense commentary makes it clear that Vonnegut’s interest in the meaning of war is more than an offshoot of current events.
In fact, the estate’s decision to publish this as his final book points to a deeper rationale: Armageddon in Retrospect stands as a vantage point from which to survey Vonnegut’s life’s work, and his work has always been about war. Against war, to be precise; this book can be considered the devoted pacifist’s final diatribe on his favorite subject.
Vonnegut’s focus on war isn’t as immediately apparent as it is for other writers, say, Joseph Conrad or Erich Remarque or Joseph Heller. Vonnegut is widely enjoyed as both a quirky postmodern science fiction writer and a loopy satirist, and the fun of him sometimes overtakes the seriousness. With a personality that managed to combine Mark Twain’s folksy charm, George Carlin’s irreverence, the sci-fi appeal of Robert Heinlein, and the postmodern insanity of William S. Burroughs, Vonnegut made a damn good entertainer, but there should be no mistake: Kurt Vonnegut wasn’t standing at all those podiums talking just to earn his (sizable) fee. He had a purpose, and that purpose was to testify about what he witnessed and what he learned as an American soldier and prisoner of war in Germany near the end of World War II.
Vonnegut spent ten painful days in a packed boxcar with his fellow prisoners before finally arriving in the grand old German city of Dresden, and he was there on February 14, 1945, when an experimental new type of incendiary bombing created a firestorm that destroyed the entire city in a single day, claiming more lives than the first atomic bomb would six months later in Hiroshima. Vonnegut and his fellow prisoners remained in Dresden for the aftermath, dragging corpses (mostly women and children, since the German men were all fighting) from the ruins.
No 20th-century American writer—not Ernest Hemingway in Europe, not Norman Mailer in the Pacific, not Matthew Eck in Somalia—can tell a war horror story like this one. (Though Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti is close, having landed in Nagasaki with a U.S. Navy force a month after the atom bombing. It’s worth noting that Ferlinghetti also became an extreme pacifist.)
Dresden entered Kurt Vonnegut’s literary universe slowly. A German-American rooted in Indianapolis bearing generations of ethnic pride, he wrote an early novel called Mother Night that addressed German guilt for World War II with the story of an American Nazi who might or might not have been secretly spying for the Allied anti-Nazi cause. This novel began and ended in moral ambiguity, somewhat like Albert Camus’s The Fall or The Stranger. The story of Dresden is briefly and impersonally told in this book.
Dresden is referred to again more indirectly in Vonnegut’s next novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, the tale of a nice-guy millionaire. This book might have been Vonnegut’s The Idiot, and, though I consider it one of his least satisfying works, the end is remarkable for a stirring epiphany in which the drunken millionaire has a vision of Indianapolis destroyed by aerial bombardment:
Eliot, rising from his seat in the bus, beheld the firestorm of Indianapolis. He was awed by the majesty of the column of fire, which was at least eight miles in diameter and fifty miles high. The boundaries of the column seemed absolutely sharp and unwavering, as though made of glass. Within the boundaries, helixes of dull red embers turned in stately harmony about an inner core of white. The white seemed holy.
Mother Night and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater were tentative works of postmodern philosophical fiction, but Vonnegut hit his stride in the late 1960s with two masterpieces, Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five. The latter is well-known for being all about Dresden, as the incident is continually refracted through the memory of a passive, gentle former-soldier who glides unstuck through time and occasionally leaves the planet Earth.
It’s less well known, though, that Cat’s Cradle is also about Dresden. The book takes many twists and turns, but ends in the same place God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater and Slaughterhouse-Five ended: in a safe space, watching a city disappear from the face of the earth. Cat’s Cradle ends with two people running into an underground shelter where they listen to the horrors of the world turning to ice above. Then:
We let three more days go by, making certain that the tornadoes had become as sincerely reticent as they seemed. And then we filled canteens from our water tank and we went above.
The air was dry and hot and deathly still.
I had heard it suggested one time that the seasons in the temperate zone ought to be six rather than four in number: summer, autumn, locking, winter, unlocking, and spring. And I remembered that as I straightened up beside our manhole and stared and listened and sniffed.
There were no smells. There was no movement. Every step I took made a gravelly squeak in blue-white frost. And every squeak was echoed loudly. The season of locking was over. The earth was locked up tight.
Somewhere in its pages, every Philip Roth novel will manage to offer at least one nasty portrait of a manipulative woman, and every John Updike novel will eventually present a tableau of unfaithful love. As for Kurt Vonnegut, every book he wrote had Dresden sketched into some corner somewhere.
The new Armageddon in Retrospect is notable for many reasons, but the greatest treasure it offers is a typewritten three-page letter that takes us back to the start of Vonnegut’s career-long fascination with Dresden. Presented in full color photographic facsimile, the letter sent by Private First Class Kurt Vonnegut to his family from a U.S. Army repatriation center on May 29, 1945, offers much evidence of the young writer’s skill, and we can pleasurably imagine his family gathering around to read the letter and enjoying his phrasings—perhaps this was his first audience.
Vonnegut appears to reveal some feelings of shame at having been captured, which is interesting in light of his later courage of conviction about the uselessness of war. Most remarkably, though, this letter shows the earliest known example of Vonnegut’s signature writing technique: the tag line, or mantra, usually used to end a pointed paragraph. In one novel he repeats “So it goes” or “Hi Ho” or “Po-to-weet”; here he uses the same technique with the tag is “But not me”:
Their planes (P-39′s) strafed and bombed us, killing fourteen, but not me.
On about February 14th the Americans came over, followed by the R.A.F., their combined labors killed 250,000 people in twenty-four hours and destroyed all of Dresden—possibly the world’s most beautiful city. But not me.
This wonderful letter, the book’s opening piece after Mark Vonnegut’s touching introduction, is easily worth the price of admission, though fortunately there is much more vintage Vonnegut ahead. A speech delivered at an Indiana college just before the author’s death offers a good capsule version of his live stand-up routines; good, iconoclastic fun as it is (“If Jesus were alive today, we would kill him with lethal injection. I call that progress.”), this installment is not significantly different from several other transcripts that appeared in Vonnegut’s previous collection, A Man Without a Country.
“Wailing Shall Be in All Streets” takes its title from the Bible and tells the straight story—one last time—of Vonnegut’s wartime experience. Despite the familiarity of the material, this piece is useful for laying out exactly where Vonnegut thinks humanity goes wrong, exactly what syndromes he believes it suffers from. Returning from Europe, he’s cheerfully asked “Did you kill a lot of Germans?” and responds with chill words for anyone celebrating the brutal treatment of an enemy’s civilian population:
The facile reply to great groans such as mine is the most hateful of all clichés, “fortunes of war,” and another, “They asked for it. All they understand is force.” Who asked for it? The only thing who understands is force? Believe me, it is not easy to rationalize the stamping out of vineyards where the grapes of wrath are stored when gathering up babies in bushel baskets or helping a man dig where he thinks his wife may be buried.
Elsewhere, he zooms in on the modern practice of massive aerial urban bombing, his words recalling Nicholson Baker in his recent, controversial Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, The End of Civilization:
There can be no doubt that the Allies fought on the side of right and the Germans and Japanese on the side of wrong. World War II was fought for near-Holy motives. But I stand convinced that the brand of justice in which we dealt, wholesale bombing of civilian populations, was blasphemous. That the enemy did it first has nothing to do with the moral problem. What I saw of our air war, as the European conflict neared an end, had the earmarks of being an irrational war for war’s sake.
The letters and essays that open this collection are strong, but the short stories that provide the bulk of the book offer the fresher material. One of the best is “Guns Before Butter,” a gentle tale featuring several starving American prisoners of war and one starving German prison guard. A universal longing for food ties the captives to their hapless guards, and the story’s darkly humorous dialogue (as the prisoners talk about food, nothing but food) highlights the shared suffering among all the helpless Central Europeans during these years.
“The Commandant’s Desk” offers a thornier, less cozy take on the same theme. A Czech carpenter has bitterly endured Nazi and Soviet occupation during the long years of World War II. A patriot, the Czech plans on celebrating his country’s salvation when American forces finally move in and take over—but he finds himself suspected of collaboration because he had built furniture for German and Russian occupiers. The new American commander also wants furniture: an ornate desk decorated with an American eagle in place of the Russian hammer and sickle. This story’s ending is a surprise, not only in the context of the tale itself but also in the context of Vonnegut’s declared pacifism. Hopelessness overrides pacifism here, as it too often does in real life.
A fanciful piece called “Great Day” doesn’t have much of a plot but paints a haunting visual tableau, superimposing a World War I battlefield upon a World War II battlefield. Unstuck in time, a lone soldier in an experiment transmits himself back and forth between the two disasters, as the truly endless battles rage.
Perhaps the most pointed fable in the book is the short and powerful “Happy Birthday, 1951″ in which a war-sick old man in postwar Germany tries (and fails) to teach a six-year-old boy the ways of the world. This story offers a familiar moral (and not an optimistic one) in a spare and powerful setting.
A few pieces here are clunkers, like “Spoils,” in which an American soldier mourns the injustice done to one innocent German child on his behalf. I know that Kurt Vonnegut wants to represent the under-represented tragedies that Germans suffered in World War II, but he fails to engage my sympathies here—I’m just not going to weep for a little boy whose pet rabbit is killed by a soldier, especially when the little boy wears crutches like Dickens’s Tiny Tim. Cynthia Ozick’s “The Shawl” this ain’t.
But Kurt Vonnegut was never afraid to hit a leaden note, and he hit many throughout his career. Armageddon in Retrospect is an entirely suitable addition to his works, which will surely be enjoyed and widely read by generations to come.
We could wish for a better title, especially since Vonnegut was always a master of the catchy one (Breakfast of Champions, Player Piano). I wonder why they didn’t pick “Back to the Monkey House,” since in fact this new collection of stories and essays stands up well next to that collection, his first and best, which also (of course) contains several pieces about war.
Kurt Vonnegut had suggested several epitaphs for himself within his (frequently self-referential) books. “God Damn It, You’ve Got To Be Kind” was one epitaph he chose, and later in A Man Without a Country he switched to “The Only Proof He Ever Needed For The Existence Of God Was Music.”
The final Vonnegut volume suggests a simpler expression. If I had to think of the best epitaph for this writer, I’d put on my deadpan Vonnegut voice and propose these three words: “Dresden, Dresden, Dresden.”
Levi Asher runs Literary Kicks, a long-running literary blog. Past works include “Coffeehouse: Writings From The Web,” the first anthology of fiction and poetry found on the Internet (in 1997), “Notes from Underground,” a digital movie based on Dostoevsky’s novel, and Tiger’s Milk, a poetry chapbook. Levi lives in Queens, New York.
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