Taking the pain away

21 September 2010

I’ve just read Slaughterhouse 5, Kurt Vonnegut’s book about the firebombing of Dresden, which he experienced as an American prisoner of war held in the city. It’s written elliptically, perhaps by way of answering the question of how to write about one of the great war crimes of the Second World War.

The story is told through the eyes of Billy Pilgrim, a man who sees time differently from the rest of us, seeing history as a series of parallel moments rather than a linear progression. The book leaves open the question of whether this is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. (And in Chapter 1, before we get to Billy’s (deliberately) fragmented narrative, Vonnegut – or at least an authorial voice – says that he has written and thrown away five thousand pages in trying to tell the story. The book was published in 1969: it’s as if he was waiting for sufficient innovation in narrative form to be able to write it. So it goes.)

Anyway, this is a long preamble to a wonderful passage in which Billy, who sees time differently, watches a film of a bombing raid backwards:

“It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this:

“American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewman. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

“The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of their planes. The containers were neatly stored in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewman and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

“When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.”

The picture at the top of this post comes from the blog Through A Vintage Lens, and is used with thanks,

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