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Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West, is a monstrous creation of twentieth century literature, a harrowing and sprawling massacre, biblical in scale and tone. The majority of the book takes place in the borderlands of southern United States and Mexico, in the middle of the nineteenth century, a time of conflict and war for land, boundaries and culture. Irregular US army outfits push into Mexico to claim land for America, encroaching on the regions of Native Americans who hunt, and are hunted by, mercenaries in the thriving market for indian scalps. More closely, the narrator follows ‘The Kid’, a young adolescent who leaves home and becomes entangled with a group of depraved scalp hunters, led by John Joel Glanton. Together, the ‘Glanton Gang’ carve a bloody swath through the borderlands, initially hunting Indians for the bounties on their scalps, before turning their guns and knives towards any living being in their path, peaceful indigenous tribes and innocent citizens, to fulfil their desire for sadistic pleasure or senseless nihilism or something else entirely.

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On criticism of McCarthy’s Western odyssey, there is none more discussed than the use of violence. Brutal, gratuitous, humiliating, terrifying, nauseating. Blood Meridian chronicles the murder of men, women and children, the rape and destruction of entire communities and towns, the scalping and mutilating of corpses who even in death cannot rest. The Wild West is a nightmare world and bloodshed is its currency, it is the. But more unsettling than any of the countless encounters which end in death and desecration, is the presence of one man throughout, Judge Holden.

Blood Meridian is full of terrible characters, and all men in this tortured land can be considered villains. McCarthy heavily researched and based the Gang’s sordid exploits on the memoirs of Samuel Chamberlain, My Confessions: The Recollections of a Rogue, and Chamberlain confirms he rode with John Joel Glanton and his outlaws between 1849 and 1850. The Glanton Gang’s penchant for violence is nauseating, but the role of a true antagonist in the novel is slowly but surely filled by the Judge Holden, arguably one of literature’s greatest. Shall we start with appearance? “Immense and terrible”, the judge stands at seven feet tall, massive in frame, extremely pale white flesh, and a giant dome of a head, completely bald and lacking any body hair, including eyebrows and eyelashes. He stands out of any crowd and is instantly recognisable. Holden is first encountered by the Kid early on in the novel, at a tent revival in Nacogdoches, where he incites a crowd to physically attack a preacher, and whom before being engulfed by the crowd, calls the judge out as the devil. An early glimpse that this man is capable of easily influencing the minds of men.

The reader comes to know Holden as a professional scalphunter in the Glanton gang, when the Kid and Toadvine are recruited by Glanton from a jail in Chihuahua, and while Holden’s talent for violence and killing is clear, it becomes evident that the judge is successful at anything he puts his hand to. As Tobin the expriest says, ‘a dab hand’. And through late night conversations around campfires or in darkened taverns in foreign lands, Holden displays preternatural knowledge and skill for paleontology, linguistics, law, philosophy and more. He is articulate and persuasive. His strength and movement is unnatural (he is an excellent musician and dancer) with fast reflexes and a skilled marksman. Several of the gang refer to meeting Holden at some point in the past. All agree, he seems not to age a day.

It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.”

Some scholars have highlighted ‘gnostic’ elements present throughout Blood Meridian. By no means an expert, I’ve understood Gnosticism to refer to religious beliefs and systems which understand the material/physical world and the human body to contain the Divine spark, which can be translated as knowledge or knowing, and the judge represents a demiurge, the ruler of the material world, often malevolent or an archon, a kind of demon. Certainly, the nature of the judge’s chilling views suggest he holds some higher status over the human race, particularly when he explicitly expresses to want to be a ‘suzerain’.

Whatever exists, he said. Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.

He looked about at the dark forest in which they were bivouacked. He nodded toward the specimens he’d collected. These anonymous creatures, he said, may seem little or nothing in the world. Yet the smallest crumb can devour us. Any smallest thing beneath yon rock out of men’s knowing. Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.

Whether or not McCarthy intended Holden as a gnostic archon or not, the first time I read Blood Meridian, I had a theory that the judge was,  if not the Devil himself, some other demon or evil incarnate, with whom Glanton struck a deal. The Glanton gang are gifted – miraculously talented – at killing, becoming an almost unstoppable force of merciless savagery. And for the scalps they take from men, woman and children they are rewarded with currency, food, liquor. Glanton is despicable and the undisputed leader but he seems to listen to the judge, and values keeping Holden with the gang, as evil and unsettling the presence of the judge may be. Once Glanton died, the ‘deal’ was broken, and this lead to the harrowing pursuit by Holden of the Kid and the expriest through the desert, to collect debts. Of course, this might have made sense if the judge did kill Toadvine and David Brown, but it is revealed they died the following year, hung publicly in Los Angeles. In subsequent readings the theory seems a little heavy handed, but it did make some sense when the judge returns at the end of the book to confront the Kid. Regardless, it’s clear to me the judge is not merely a man.

He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.

There is plenty of speculation of the fate of the Kid, now a man, at the end of Blood Meridian. The judge appears to ambush the Kid in the jakes outside a saloon, naked, and ‘gathered him in his arms against his immense and terrible flesh’. The narrator chooses not to reveal the kid’s fate, and the only words an onlooker can mutter when witnessing the scene is “Good God almighty”. In a book which graphically depicts shocking violence throughout, something happens in the jakes that is indescribable in its horror. A haunting ending, one where the judge returns to the saloon to dance into the night, boasting that he never sleeps and he will never die.

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In 1937 Ernest Hemingway spent considerable time with republican forces as a journalist, covering the Spanish Civil War. His experiences formed the basis of For Whom The Bell Tolls, published in 1940. It centers on the American Robert Jordan, a dynamiter and demolitions expert in the International Brigades, fighting for the Republic against Spain’s fascist forces in the country’s civil war. Tasked with blowing up a key bridge behind enemy lines, he travels to the camp of a republican guerilla group based in a cave hidden in the hills near Segovia. The former leader of the guerillas, Pablo, has become a drunk and has lost the respect of his men. Pablo fears the repercussions from the fascist forces if they assist in blowing of the bridge, leading to a clash with Robert Jordan, but Pilar, Pablo’s wife, usurps him and pledge their allegiance to helping the American. It is here that Jordan also meets María, a young Spanish woman who has recently escaped from fascist forces who murdered her family and raped her.

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Hemingway’s trademark writing is present here. The prose is simple, perhaps deceptively so, when dealing with some powerful themes, and his syntax is uncomplicated for the most part. At times For Whom The Bell Tolls is slow and laborious, its dialogue awkward and antiquated (Hemingway chose to use words such as ‘thou’ and ‘thine’). But apart from some initially jarring conversations, Hemingway’s style is present here and as readable as ever. There are extended sequences from the point of view of Jordan, where he internally considers his role in the war, his future prospects, his love for María. These thoughts are among the highlights for me, with Hemingway delving into his characters and exploring their fears. Having only read The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway, For Whom The Bell Tolls is more powerful, broader in scope, and packs emotional punches throughout.

Death looms over everything and death and sacrifice are arguably the main themes present in the novel. A celebration of life and love, and the fear and acceptance of death. So frequently does the writing switch between describing beauty and violence, love and brutality. One outstanding chapter which highlights the cruelty where Pablo and his republican men have captured a group of fascist sympathisers in the village of Ronda, and form a line of men who beat the victims before they are forced to throw themselves off a cliff into a deep gorge. Another is the final stand of El Sordo, the leader of another nearby anti-fascist guerilla group, who fight with bravery and resolve before being killed by mortar fire.

‘You have killed?’ Robert Jordan asked in the intimacy of the dark and of their day together.
[Anselmo]’Yes. Several times. But not with pleasure. To me it is a sin to kill a man. Even Fascists whom we must kill. To me there is a great difference between the bear and the man and I do not believe the wizardry of the gypsies about the brotherhood with the animals. No. I am against the killing of men.’
‘Yet you have killed.’
‘Yes. And will again. But if I live later, I will try to live in such a way, doing no harm to any one, that it will be forgiven.’
‘By whom?’
‘Who knows? Since we do not have God here any more, neither His Son nor the Holy Ghost, who forgives? I do not know.
‘You have not God any more?’
‘No. Man. Certainly not. If there were God, never would he have permitted what I have seen with my eyes. Let them have God.’

The finale is tense and a (welcomed) change of pace to the rest of the novel. Considering the story only covers Robert Jordan’s four days and three nights with the guerilla group, the emotional weight I felt towards the end was considerable. As so often is the case, there are no happy endings in war and Jordan is forced to say goodbye to María and the rest of the guerillas who have a great deal of respect and camaraderie for the American. For Whom The Bell Tolls is a compelling account of a dark but important era in Spanish history, and while not perfect, its slow and meticulous build up to its thrilling, beautiful finale wrought with emotion, is a more than worthy payoff.

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Between 1980 and 1991, the comic anthology magazine Raw serially published a piece of work titled Maus. Soon after it was released in its entirety as a graphic novel, and in 1992, Maus by Art Spiegelman (the joint editor of Raw at the time) became the first graphic novel to receive the Pulitzer Prize. Spiegelman was born not long after the end of Second World War, in 1948, to his Polish Jewish parents Vladek and Anja, survivors of the Second World War and the Holocaust, the genocide of over six million Jews by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany. The family emigrated to the US in 1951, where Spiegelman grew up with a keen interest in comics, eventually becoming a cartoonist. His mother committed suicide in his teenage years and his relationship with his father was strained, to put it mildly.

Maus will go down as one of the most important graphic novels of all time. With its delicate subject matter it manages to inject raw emotion, sensitivity, love and humour into one of the most horrific and despicable events in the history of mankind. Spiegelman depicts the Jews as mice, and the Nazis as cats, and the cartoon-ism the animals give the story highlights the unreal situation millions of Jews found themselves in. For the most part the book covers two narratives; the first, scenes in New York focusing on the relationship between Spiegelman and his estranged father Vladek, and the second, Vladek’s tales and recollections from Poland during the war, including attempts to evade and hide from the Nazis, their inevitable capture and subsequent incarceration in Auschwitz, and finally their eventual escape.

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The art style of Maus is simple and high contrast, with little more than black and white being used in the panels. This can give a feeling of heaviness, of weight. Sometimes, when the dialogue is squeezed into frames, things get a little claustrophobic. Other frames have no text at all, leaving the images to do the talking. Both are done with purpose and for maximum emotional effect.

While Maus makes some references to the ‘bigger picture’ of events in Poland, Germany and the rest of Europe, for the most part it is a tale of Vladek and his own experience and survival. Running in parallel to this are scenes with Spiegelman and his now elderly father Vladek, as he shares his memories for Spiegelman to record in an attempt to write Maus. We also meet characters like Vladek’s second wife Mala (Vladek’s wife during the War, and Art’s mother, committed suicide in 1968) and Spiegelman’s wife Françoise. These scenes are incredibly deeply moving and personal when intersected with Vladek’s recollections of the treatment of the Jews. Spiegelman’s relationship with his father is complex, with Vladek is often painted in a negative light: his reluctance to part with his money, his racist views and a constant and unfair comparison of Mala to his deceased wife Anja. His miserly and stubborn traits, while being key to his survival in the camps, are what annoy Art decades later. But overall there is love and respect between the two, even if their father-son relationship is not an orthodox one (but when one has been through what Vladek went through, how can there be?)

There are also touching moments where an older Spiegelman, working on the later Maus comics presumably after his fathers death, is weighed down by guilt after the success of the first issues. A poignant frame shows a depressed Spiegelman working away on top of a pile of dead Jews. How can his problems possibly compare to what Vladek had to endure? It was around this time that I had to put the book down for a few days. It should go without saying, but Maus isn’t an easy read.

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In the final few pages Spiegelman includes a polaroid of Vladek. It genuinely affected me – not just the jarring contrast between illustration and photograph, but the reminder that this was a real man, not a cartoon mouse, that faced and survived these unbelievable ordeals.

Maus is a difficult piece of work to define. Part biography, part memoir, part historical non-fiction. In truth it doesn’t require such labels. In bridging the gap between history, art and story-telling, Maus is one of the most important pieces of literature of the last century. It remains vital that such atrocities are never repeated, and while the inherent violence of the world continues, hate should never be allowed to prosper as it did during one of the darkest periods of human history.

mother night

Howard J. Campbell, as you might have discerned from the letter above, is not a popular man. Quite the opposite. After the end of World War II, he had plenty of enemies and very few friends. Born an American, Campbell moved to Germany as a child before WWII, only to eventually become an illustrious figure in the Nazi regime as a propagandist, issuing malicious anti-semitic campaigns.

I am an American by birth, a Nazi by reputation, and a nationless person by inclination.

Branded a traitor and despised by the world as a Nazi war criminal he currently sits in an Israeli jail, on trial for his crimes, using an old German typewriter to pen his memoirs – his version of events. Campbell, who worked under Goebbels and became a celebrated figure in Germany during the war, says his actions were a result of a secret deal to become a spy for the US military.

I had hoped, as a broadcaster, to be merely ludicrous, but this is a hard world to be ludicrous in, with so many human beings so reluctant to laugh, so incapable of thought, so eager to believe and snarl and hate. So many people wanted to believe me!

Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile.

Published in 1961 Mother Night is Kurt Vonnegut’s third novel, and it is typically Vonnegut; heavy topics and dark themes narrated with prose that is light, funny and painfully human. Vonnegut states the book’s moral right from the off: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful of what we pretend to be. And so we read Howard J. Campbell’s memoirs, as he tries to justify his vile and hateful deeds. As he would have us believe, his frequent radio broadcasts (in which he X) were containing codes which were providing intelligence to the Allies throughout the war. But Campbell, and by extension, the reader, is in constant turmoil. Are evil deeds justified, if they service good?

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While Campbell confirms he was approached by Frank Wirtanen, a US military agent (or his ‘blue fairy godmother’, as Campbell describes him) to work as a spy during the war, this is not acknowledged by the US government once the war is over, and Campbell is unable to prove his innocence. When he is discovered after the war, alive and well, back in the country he betrayed, the mob bays for his blood. Campbell is forced to seek shelter and support from his only allies – fascists and racists that still see him as a hero for his Nazi propaganda. This supporting cast are reprehensible for the most part but Vonnegut is able to find something good (and entertaining) in most, even if they are still awful people.

‘You hate America, don’t you?’ she said.
‘That would be as silly as loving it,’ I said. ‘It’s impossible for me to get emotional about it, because real estate doesn’t interest me. It’s no doubt a great flaw in my personality, but I can’t think in terms of boundaries. Those imaginary lines are as unreal to me as elves and pixies. I can’t believe that they mark the end or the beginning of anything of real concern to a human soul. Virtues and vices, pleasures and pains cross boundaries at will.’
‘You’ve changed so,’ she said.
‘People should be changed by world wars,’ I said, ‘else what are world wars for?’

Vonnegut creates a whole void of grey, a million shades away from black and a million shades away from white, in which you genuinely are unsure whether to root for and sympathise with Campbell, or condemn him. But while Campbell is beautifully conflicted and guilt-ridden, he was not quite – for me at least – as compelling a character as I am used to reading about in a Vonnegut, nor the cast of satirical support. They did not affect me in Mother Night as they have in other novels, such as The Sirens of Titan, Slaughterhouse 5 and Cat’s Cradle.

Let there be nothing harmonious about our children’s playthings, lest they grow up expecting peace and order, and be eaten alive.

Having said that, Mother Night is still an outstanding book and while it is not my favourite book by Vonnegut, it is written by Vonnegut, and so it has its trademark gallows humour and moments of bittersweet and humanistic victory, as well as terribly sad conclusions.

It was late autumn. Oysters had come back in season, and we were feasting on a dozen apiece. I’d known Kraft about a year then.
‘Howard — ‘ he said to me, ‘future civilizations — better civilizations than this one, are going to judge all men by the extent to which they’ve been artists. You and I, if some future archaeologist finds our works miraculously preserved in some city dump, will be judged by the quality of our creations. Nothing else about us will matter.’
‘Umm’ I said.

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John Hersey was one of the first Western journalists to witness the devastation that the atomic bomb caused which reduced the vast part of Hiroshima to ruins. Published in 1946, Hiroshima focuses on six survivors of an atomic bomb dropped on their city. Six people from different walks of life who started that fateful day at varying distances from the centre of the explosion but who would all suffer, not just in the immediate aftermath but in the years to come as they struggle to reshape their lives after the cataclysm.

Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a reverend at the Hiroshima Methodist Church; Mrs Hatsuyo Nakamura, a war widow attempting to raise her three children; Dr. Masakazu Fujii, a hedonistic man who owns a private hospital; Father Wilheim Kleinsorge, a German priest who despite his fondness and work for the community feels unaccepted by the Japanese;  Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young surgeon working at the Red Cross Hospital; and Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a 20 year clerk working in a tin factory and engaged to a soldier out at war.

These were six normal Japanese civilians, and at 0815 on the morning of 6 August 1945 their lives were changed forever as they were all, regardless of status or rank or position, thrown into a fiery turmoil of which they would all survive, but see things that would scar them and forever challenge their perceptions of war, and man, and life.

Some witnessed a ‘great, photographic flash’. Some who were looking in the direction of the explosion were blinded. Buildings crumbled and homes exploded. Shadows marked on the sidewalk nearer the epicentre in the form of vaporised men, woman, children. Miss Toshiko is crushed and trapped under books and shelves and the rubble of the building around her. Dr. Sasaki was unhurt but was the only doctor in the hospital able to help, and so began a grueling three day shift of nightmarish quality and exhaustion as the wounded shuffled in.

Tugged here and there in his stockinged feet, bewildered by the numbers, staggered by so much raw flesh, Dr. Sasaki lost all sense of profession and stopped working as a skilful surgeon and a sympathetic man; he became an automaton, mechanically wiping, daubing, winding, wiping, daubing, winding.

The terror of the tremendous power of the bomb. The confusion as the emergency services were overwhelmed. Everyday life halted, paused during a painful recovery period of which some struggle through, some would die, but of which all would change. In the debris and wreckage survivors begin to rise from the ashes of their city to help whoever is still alive to help, as voices scream and cry from under rubble and bodies lie dead and dying in the streets. Groups of people evacuate to parks and rivers to avoid rolling fires that engulf streets and in those groups, scared and confused, they vomit, the skin falls from their bodies and blood streams from eyes and ears.

When he had penetrated the bushes, he saw there were about twenty men, and they were all in exactly the same nightmarish state: their faces were wholly burned, their eyesockets were hollow, the fluid from their melted eyes had run down their cheeks. […] Their mouths were mere swollen, pus-covered wounds, which they could not bear to stretch enough to admit the spout of the teapot.

Hersey does not shy away from gory details. The scenes he narrates are visceral and horrific. But I think it’s important to mention that Hiroshima also showcases the power of the human spirit, of faith, of kindness and determination. The second half of the book details the lives of our survivors (a term coined for them was hibakushas, or explosion-affected people) as they attempt to continue their permanently affected lives in a permanently affected world.

These thoughts led her to an opinion that was unconventional for a hibakusha: that too much attention was paid to the power of the A-bomb, and that not enough thought was given to the fact that warfare had indiscriminately made victims of Japanese who had suffered atomic and incendiary bombings, Chinese civilians who had been attacked by the Japanese, reluctant young Japanese and American soldiers who were drafted to be killed or maimed, and, yes, Japanese prostitutes and their mixed-blood babies. She had firsthand knowledge of the cruelty of the atomic bomb, but she felt that more notice should be given to the causes than to the instruments of total war.

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One account towards the end is particularly shameful. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, who has worked hard to protect and help hibakushas, raising funds for cosmetic surgery and healthcare, is ambushed, finds himself in a television studio with cameras pointing into his face and broadcasting out to millions of Americans as a talkshow (This Is Your Life) unravels around him, centered on his life and brought face to face with the co-pilot of the Enola Gay, the bomber which flew over Hiroshima and dropped “Little-Boy” onto the unsuspecting population below. Robert Lewis, who cried remorseful tears in front of the cameras but who turned up drunk and late to the show after discovering his appearance would not be resulting in a fat cheque. It felt like savage exploitation.

Throughout the final chapter, The Aftermath, which was added forty years after the initial publication, the progress of the survivors is updated, but intrusively interjected with dates detailing the “progress” of countries around the world, competing to develop atom and hydrogen bombs in a paranoid and ill-conceited game of creation. All the more infuriating when placed alongside the struggles of the hibakushas, years and years after the dropping of the bomb.

During the reading of Hiroshima and the subsequent writing of this post, political debate on the intervention and bombing on foreign countries by my own country is eerily relevant. There is no simple solution now, just as there was no simple solution in 1945. The protection of innocent lives must always be, in my opinion, imperative. Often, such decisions made on the other side of the world assume some human cost, as if nothing more can be done. It is just the way it is, a part of war.

John Hersey’s account of the bombing is haunting and emotionally exhausting. The narrative is respectful and dry, told as a story despite it being non-fiction. Hersey doesn’t need to play up or add unnecessary drama to the eye-witnesses’s tales. With his tactful delivery the truth itself is powerful enough. Hiroshima is saddening, angering, terrifying.

Kiyoshi Tanimoto was over seventy now. The average age of all hibakusha was sixty-two. The surviving hibakushas had been polled by Chugoku Shimbun in 1984, and 54.3 per cent of them said they thought that nuclear weapons would be used again. Tanimoto read in the papers that the United States and the Soviet Union were steadily climbing the steep steps of deterrence. . . He was slowing down a bit. His memory, like the world’s, was getting spotty.

Anyone unable to understand how useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book either.

Like all of Kurt Vonnegut’s books, Cat’s Cradle is typically difficult to nail down in terms of genre. To define his books as science-fiction is like calling Moby Dick an adventure book; there’s much more to them than that. It is science-fiction, but there’s a hearty dollop of satire. And while it’s a tragic tale, the way its written reads more like a comedy. Vonnegut’s fourth novel, the book was published in 1963.

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The narrator of this story is John, or Jonah, who is attempting to write on what Americans were doing on the day the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. We follow him on his investigation into the life of the late Felix Hoenikker, the father of the atom bomb that killed thousands in Japan and brought WWII to an end. To learn more about him he contacts thes the three Hoenikker children, still affected by their father’s life and legacy, and it is through them he stumbles across Hoenikker’s last and most deadly invention, ice-nine. A blue crystal like substance, split into three and owned by the Hoenikker children, that upon contact would crystallise every droplet of water it touched, turning the Earth into a blue frozen tundra.

After the thing went off, after it was a sure thing that America could wipe out a city with just one bomb, a scientist turned to Father and said, ‘Science has now known sin.’ And do you know what Father said? He said, ‘What is sin?’ Felix Hoenikker. The bloke who invented the atom bomb. Promising. . .

John’s investigation takes him to the republic of San Lorenzo to interview Dr Julian Castle, where he is introduced to a number of strange and interesting people, including Dr Castle’s son and the owner of the island’s only hotel, Philip Castle, ‘Papa’ Monzano the island’s old and terminally ill dictator, his daughter Mona Monzano, the most beautiful woman John has ever seen, and the three Hoenikker children, Frank, Angel and Newt. And it is through his eyes and writings we witness the end of the world.

“Self-taught, are you?” Julian Castle asked Newt.

“Isn’t everybody?” Newt inquired.

“Very good answer”.

Dialogue throughout is often funny and smart.

“And Father started giggling,” Castle continued.

“He couldn’t stop. He walked out into the night with his flashlight. He was still giggling. He was making the flashlight beam dance over all the dead people stacked outside. He put his hand on my head and do you know what that marvelous man said to me?” asked Castle.

“Nope.”

‘Son,’ my father said to me, ‘someday this will all be yours”.

Vonnegut goes to town creating the wacky island of San Lorenzo, with a rich cast of characters and strange traditions and the fascinating religious movement, Bokononism. Many of the most thought-provoking quotes are Bokononist teachings, and John reveals during his tale that he too has become a Bokononist through his experiences on San Lorenzo.

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To my eyes there are two main themes within Cat’s Cradle. Firstly, Ice-nine, Hoenikker’s technologically (or biochemically?) bewildering invention, clearly representing weapons of mass production (more specifically atomic warfare given the book was published a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis) and the threat their mere existence poses to humanity. The science involved is astounding. . .but ultimately the vast amount of intelligence and hard work has gone into creating something primarily to kill. And as is shown, accidents can happen – it doesn’t necessarily take an evil madman to destroy the world. What is somewhat amusing in the book, but terrifying in reality, is how easily this ensemble of inadequate and flawed characters have access to a doomsday device that can end humanity. We see how recklessly the Hoenikker children use it to get their wants. Angela, for example, gives some of her ice-nine to the Americans in exchange for a stunningly attractive toy-boy husband. Frank trades some of his ice-nine to Papa Monzano of San Lorenzo to be a Major in Papa’s shambolic army. The poor, poverty-stricken San Lorenzo where fatefully, ice-nine is allowed to be unleashed on the world.

I do not say that children at war do not die like men, if they have to die. To their everlasting honor and our everlasting shame, they do die like men, thus making possible the manly jubilation of patriotic holidays. But they are murdered children all the same. Vonnegut perhaps warming up his war-weariness for his most renowned work, Slaughterhouse 5.

Which leads to the second major theme of Cat’s Cradle, religion. Bokononism is Vonnegut’s calypso/Carribean themed religion, and the native religion on San Lorezno. The general theme is that we are attracted to certain people and objects throughout life, and those within the same group, a karass, are linked and somehow intertwined through the will of God. Within John’s karass is Dr. Felix Hoenikker and his three children along with many of the characters he encounters in San Lorenzo. Members of the same karass often express their love in the ritual ‘boko-maru’, where the bottoms of feet are pressed against one another. Like a sole-shake.

“Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before,” Bokonon tells us. “He is full of murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their ignorance the hard way.” Bokonon, in the Books of Bokonon, admits that it is all a lie, right off the bat. There is no deceit.

Don’t be a fool! Close this book at once! It is nothing but foma!

Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy. *foma = harmless untruths

Basically, Bokonon created Bokononism as a relief to those who need it. A lie can be a good thing if it promotes happiness, no? The inhabitants of San Lorezno are thin and dying, starving in poverty. They use Bokononism to make their lives more bearable.

“Papa” Monzano, he’s so very bad

But without bad “Papa” I would be so sad;

Because without “Papa’s” badness,

Tell me, if you would,

How could wicked old Bokonon

Ever, ever look good?

Bokonon’s calypso on Dynamic Tension

Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;

Man got to sit and wonder ‘why, why, why?’

Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;

Man got to tell himself he understand.

Bokonon’s calypso on trying to understand

The very ending of the book shows Bokonon, sitting on the top of Mount McCabe, with a piece of paper containing scrawled handwriting. John approaches him and reads the final words of the Books of Bokonon;

If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity; and I would climb to the top of Mount McCabe and lie down on my back with my history for a pillow; and I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison that makes statues of men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who. The final sentence within the Books of Bokonon

That is how the book ends. Does this mean, upon reading this, John finishes his account and commits suicide? Is that the end? It seems likely. To discover Bokonon, contemplating his religion. To see him write like this, why did he carry on the charade of Bokononism all this time, if this was how he really felt? Or did he genuinely think he could make a difference, only for ice-nine and the end of the world caused by the events on San Lorenzo shatter his faith in (God/fate/mankind?)

Short and sweet, written simply with a rapid turnover of chapters, Cat’s Cradle is probably one of Vonnegut’s more accessible books. The warnings of humanity’s self-made destruction in ice-nine and the soothing falsities of religion as themes can be as shallow or as deep as the reader wants to take them. Or you can ignore that all together and read about a strange bunch of characters who together bring about the end of the world as we know it.

Someday, someday, this crazy world will have to end,

And our God will take things back that He to us did lend.

And if, on that sad day, you want to scold our God,

Why just go ahead and scold Him. He’ll just smile and nod.

Bokonon’s calypso on the end of the world

Listen: Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.

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Slaughterhouse 5 follows the life of Billy Pilgrim, a WWII soldier who was present during the horrors of the Dresden bombing. A prisoner of war at the time, we read a rambled account of his life before, during and after this cataclysmic event. Rambled you ask? Yep. That’s because Billy Pilgrim time travels, subconsciously. This account of his life takes him from war-torn France to his eighteenth wedding anniversary, to his days in school to his enclosure at the zoo on the planet Tralfamadore, and eventually to his death. So it goes.

Not in any particular order mind you. Billy Pilgrim does not experience his life on a continuous plane, and nor does the reader. How anyone else would experience their lives, as a linear progression of events and ageing as time goes on, is declared absurd. At least, this is what Billy Pilgrim learns from the Tralfamadorians who abduct him and teach him about life, time, free will and the fourth dimension.

The Tralfamadorians are strange alien creatures. Their ideas on free-will and the fourth dimension hugely influence the Slaughterhouse 5’s unorthodox narrative. The events of the novel, zipping backwards and forwards from one of Billy Pilgrim’s life event to the next, is very much how the Tralfamadorians view time. They can see the 4th dimension, and are believers that everything that has happened, is happening or will happen, can’t be changed.

Rather than a straight line, they see time as assembled moments which can be experienced simultaneously, memories and experiences being ‘all at once’.

“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”

The Tralfamadorian in the passage above speaks to Billy on the strange fascination that humanity has with the idea of free will. For them, and by the sounds of it all other life in the universe, all events are structured beyond the control of their participants. In other words, enjoy the ride. This applies to death too. Death is unavoidable and as such there is no fear of it. The Tralfamadorian saying “So it goes” is adopted by Billy Pilgrim and the narrator throughout the book, a casual saying that highlights the nonchalant approach to death. It is not an end, rather another moment that exists at the same time as all other moments one will experience in their life.

“Little Billy was terrified, because his father had said Billy was going to learn to swim by the method of sink-or-swim. His father was going to throw Billy into the deep end, and Billy was going to damn well swim.

It was like an execution. . . . [Billy] dimly sensed that somebody was rescuing him. Billy resented that.”

We can see why Billy Pilgrim finds it easy to believe the Tralfamadorians and refuse the notion of free will. The passage above shows that even at an early stage, Billy Pilgrim had little choice in his circumstances. He was going to learn to swim, and he had no choice in the matter. He would later be rescuing from drowning, and he had no choice in that either. Billy is slightly awkward and a very nervous individual, something which he attributes to his moving through time – he never knows which piece of his life he will have to perform next.

“Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt”

Slaughterhouse 5 is a satirical anti-war novel, or at least that’s what it might appear to be upon first glance. Vonnegut himself was present during the Dresden atrocities, which makes the book somewhat semi-autobiographical. And so it would make sense for the novel to be anti-war. Who better to write it than Vonnegut, who was present and witness the destruction first hand? The unnamed narrator of the book, who introduces the life of Billy Pilgrim, is almost certainly a version of Vonnegut himself. And several times in the novel, he is mentioned as being present. When the American soldiers are emptying their upset stomachs into the latrines, the narrator is there with them. When the prisoners of war finally arrive in the German city of Dresden, the troops are enamoured by its beauty. The narrator pipes up, describing it as ‘Oz’. These mentions keep the book rooted in reality and make its impact more meaningful and believable.

After some time away from the novel (and a chance to let it sink in), I have more of an idea of what this book is meant to be. I’ve reached over for my copy of Slaughterhouse 5 more times than I can count in the last fortnight. Not to give it a proper re-read – not yet anyway – but I find myself skimming through random passages and chapters, much like Billy Pilgrim finds his mind scattered between his life’s timeline.

This is a book which cannot be pinned down by genre. It is a book of Billy Pilgrim’s search for a reasoning behind human suffering. Religion and patriotism don’t really cut it, and so Billy Pilgrim (either in his mind, or for real) leaves Earth for Tralfamadore, where you can experience your good memories and you can never die. Even before birth and after death you can sense something, before being swung back into a memory from within your lifetime.

Billy is indifferent to life. He ends up being in situations against his will – reinforcing the Tralfamadorian notion of fate over free will. He’s dragged to war in a position he hates:

“Billy was a chaplain’s assistant in the war. A chaplain’s assistant is customarily a figure of fun in the American Army. Billy was no exception. He was powerless to harm the enemy or to help his friends. In fact, he had no friends. He was a valet to a preacher, expected no promotions or medals, bore no arms, and had a meek faith in a loving Jesus which most soldiers found putrid.”

An uninspiring insipid existence which sums up most of Billy Pilgrim’s life. He stumbles through it. He doesn’t take action. A passenger in his own life. He rarely makes choices. The war, his marriage, even as he grows old his daughter walks all over him. He is an observer to the mindless violence and horror, which eventually drives him (or his mind) to another planet, somewhere where he can attempt to make sense of all this. But even then, he doesn’t discover any of this for himself – the Tralfamadorians teach him all he knows.

Billy manages to survive the Battle of the Bulge where stronger, fitter, better men perish. Fate? He is forced to continue through enemy lines by Roland Weary, a violent but equally inexperienced soldier with grand ideas of war and fighting and heroics. Frequently, exhausted and broken Billy tells Weary and the scouts who accompany them, “You go on. . .You guys go on without me. I’m all right.” But Weary forces him to continue.

Billy, at least later on in his life, seems to acknowledge this indifference to life, and is ashamed and embarrassed as it makes his relationship with his mother unbearable.

“Billy covered his head with his blanket again. He always covered his head when his mother came to see him in the mental ward – always got much sicker until she went away…She upset Billy simply by being his mother. She made him feel embarrassed and ungrateful and weak because she had gone to so much trouble to give him life, and to keep that life going, and Billy didn’t really like life at all.”

Whilst reading I never had any doubt that Billy Pilgrim’s experiences on Tralfamadore were real; or at least he was convinced they were real. He speaks of the abduction very matter-of-factly

“Billy now shuffled down his upstairs hallway, knowing he was about to be kidnapped by a flying saucer…Billy was guided by dread and the lack of dread. Dread told him when to stop. Lack of it told him when to move again.”

The war plays a huge part of the novel, and obviously shook Vonnegut. War is described using particular experiences. Very little heroics, very few soldiers wanting to be where they are. And for the majority of the book, the soldiers we experienced are prisoners of war. They have no choice, no freedom, no control over their situations. War is not romanticised here, and characters in the book that do look upon it favourably, e.g. Roland Weary or Bertram Copeland Rumfoord, who tries to reason with Billy in a hospital ward they at one time share that Dresden was justified, are cast by Vonnegut as the villains of the piece.

“You were just babies in the war – like the ones upstairs! . . . But you’re not going to write it that way, are you. . . . You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.”

The wife of the narrator’s war comrade is furious to find out he is to be writing a book on the war and his experiences, as she thinks he will glamorise war. He does not – Slaughterhouse 5 reinforces the pointlessness of war, and the narrator even promises that he will call the book ‘The Children’s Crusade’, which is actually the subtitle to the book itself.

Vonnegut describes some moments that typify war and suffering, and certainly does not romanticise or glorify war in any way.

“Nobody talked much as the expedition crossed the moon. There was nothing appropriate to say. One thing was clear: Absolutely everybody in the city was supposed to be dead, regardless of what they were, and that anybody that moved in it represented a flaw in the design. There were to be no moon men at all.”

In the aftermath of the firebombing that ravaged Dresden, Billy observes the calculated ruthlessness that has murdered a large proportion of a city. When the bombs dropped, no thought was given to who the targets would be – soldiers, women, children…or ironically, American prisoners of war.

“So Billy made a [syrup] lollipop for [Edgar Derby]. He opened the window. He stuck the lollipop into poor old Derby’s gaping mouth. A moment passed, and then Derby burst into tears.”

One of the most noble, senior officers, Edgar Derby, is reduced to tears after tasting syrup; so desperately starving he had been. To see someone that Billy Pilgrim looked up to, as a real gentleman and good guy, dehumanised as a victim of sufferable war, is significant.

“A middle-aged man and wife were crooning to the horses. They were noticing what the Americans had not noticed – that the horses’ mouths were bleeding, gashed by the bits, that the horses’ hooves were broken, so that every step meant agony, that the horses were insane with thirst. . .

Billy asked them in English what it was they wanted, and they at once scoled him in English for the condition of the horses. They made Billy get out of the wagon and come look at the horses. When Billy saw the condition of his means of transportation, he burst into tears. He hadn’t cried about anything else in the war.”

This is also extremely interesting albeit sad and tragic. Billy cries for the only time during the war. Why? Because of the condition of the horses? The horses are similar to Billy, and the rest of his imprisoned soliders. They are following orders, with no way of making sense of the destruction that surrounds them. Like Billy, they are innocent, but continue marching on, following orders that they can’t possibly understand.

So it becomes reasonable to assume that Billy Pilgrim, understandably, is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder as a result of what he has experienced in the war. Suddenly a lot of the strange observations and memories make more sense. Those terribly written but fantastical stories written by Kilmore Trout – a way of escaping reality, or to lose himself within the absurd plots.

When considering Billy’s nightmares, his kicking and screaming in his sleep while on the boxcart in Germany (resulting in the other soldiers unwilling to sleep next to him), easily startled and the flashbacks – not becoming unstuck in time, but relieving moments from the war that he cannot forget.

The prime example of these flashbacks is at his eighteenth wedding anniversary. A barbershop quartet performs for Billy and his fat wife, Valencia. A latent memory from Dresden is triggered, and the effect it has on Billy speaks for itself.

“Unexpectedly, Billy Pilgrim found himself upset by the song and the occasion. . . Billy had powerful psychosomatic responses to the changing chords. His mouth filled with the taste of lemonade, and his face became grotesque, as though he really were being stretched on the torture engine called the rack.”

“‘You look so awful.’

‘Really – I’m O.K.’ And he was, too, except that he could find no explanation for why the song had affected him so grotesquely. He had supposed for years that he had no secrets from himself. Here was proof that he had a great big secret somewhere inside, and he could not imagine what it was.”

The whole space travel experience on Tralfamadore is now put into perspective. A way for Billy to deal with the horrors he has seen and can’t explain. An attempt to make sense of the senselessness of war. If we have no free will, and our actions are pre-determined, then it is hopeless attempting to explain and prevent such appalling events such as war and suffering. And so Billy Pilgrim creating a world for himself, where there is no free will, is his way of attempting to comfort himself, his existence and his peace of mind.

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference.”

This was my first Vonnegut experience, and I loved every word. The genre of Kurt Vonnegut, from what I’ve heard, is primarily a blend of satire and science-fiction. But I don’t recognise Slaughterhouse 5 as a science fiction book. Sure, Billy Pilgrim’s alien abduction and time spend on Tralfamadore comes straight from the world of science-fiction, and Kilmore Trout is introduced along with many of his bizarre fantasy books as a science-fiction writer. But these are fronts. Methods of escape used by the characters. Billy and his mental ward-mate Rosewater read these works of science fiction by a rather poor writer in Trout to escape a reality that they can, or no longer want to face. Billy escapes to Tralfamadore to find explanations to life, suffering, war and the atrocities he witnessed in Dresden.

Poo-tee-weet?” is the final phrase of the novel. Billy observes the charred landscape of a ruined Dresden, met with silence but for the song of birds. The question mark indicates this bird is asking a question, but as we cannot understand it and it makes no sense to us, we have no way of answering. I think Billy Pilgrim (and Kurt Vonnegut) realise that the question of war, and the atrocities come with it, also pose questions that we simply cannot answer. In which case, “Poo-tee-weet?” is as intelligible a thing to say at the end of a massacre as any spoken words we could actually understand when trying to describe the indescribable.

It’s a strange piece of work and anything but coherent. It has dark humour, a meandering plot; it’s beautiful and emotional as you might expect from someone who was present at the time. Make sure you read it before you ‘die’. So it goes.