Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Exorcising the Devil he knew

kw: book reviews, stories, essays, fiction

Reading Kurt Vonnegut, I have to struggle to slow down so I don't miss things. His writing carries me on at breakneck speed. So, in spite of my best efforts to stretch out the experience, I read Armageddon in Retrospect (edited by his son Mark Vonnegut) in two sittings.

After an introduction by Mark V., the book opens with the letter Kurt sent to his family May 29, 1945, after his release from POW camp. The letter itself hints at the harrowing experiences he'd undergone, including being one of the few to survive the bombing of Dresden. The second chapter, the text of his last speech (written April 27, 2007), is the last bit of nonfiction in the book...except that the stories are at least partially autobiographical, and seem to tell the truth better than nonfiction could do.

Most of the stories are based on his experiences as a POW (He uses the term P.W.). Others, such as "Great Day", are set in other times, with his unique, sardonic take on what other times might bring.

Each story is preceded by one of his drawings. This is a typical example, though it is not used in the book; it is found with many others at the Kurt Vonnegut web site. Be sure to click on the "confetti" link also.

Vonnegut was almost rabidly anti-war. His war stories are morality plays. In "Spoils" a soldier's conscience keeps him from "liberating" more than a bent saber, but only in "The Unicorn Trap" do we find the wish-fulfillment dream that the guy who needs killing most is actually killed.

Vonnegut's experiences in Germany and the Sudetenland (Western Czechoslovakia) filled him with memories he dredged for the passion behind his writing, and the stories here seem intended to drive out the demons that must have haunted him. Many of them clearly convey the grinding hopelessness of a POW who is suffering the practical effects of the Geneva Convention. While this law may prevent the worst abuses, it allows many to fluorish. Men who are too tired and hungry to dream about women, whose most voluptuous fantasies revolve around food, are in an unusual state indeed.

The title story is about an attempt to trap the real Devil, to cage Satan and so remove evil from the earth. It is couched as a fund-raising letter: if funds to keep the Devil caged run out, evil will re-enter the human race.

It is a parable for our time. Indifference is infinitely more evil than hatred. Love of money may be "a root of all kinds of evil", to quote Paul accurately, but the love of ease that underlies the indifference of the vast majority of us is a deeper root of greater evils. Of course the Devil is going to get loose again; nobody cares enough for it to be otherwise.

This drawing, titled "One-Liner #1" has nothing to do with Armageddon or Satan, so far as I know. It is just one that I like. I kept the image small to stay within Fair Use guidelines, because large prints of this are for sale at the web site linked above.

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