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Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (November 11, 1922 – April 11, 2007)
Tuesday, 17 April 2007 12:20
by Paul William Roberts

A great soul and a great American writer is gone. A nation preoccupied with money and the hubris of empire cannot be expected to miss Kurt Vonnegut or even notice his absence in a culture so debased now that within a decade or so it will not possess a single artist of international stature. Of those possessed of literary greatness still living, America has tended to lionize the apolitical or obliquely and gracefully critical, shunning those whose outright anger or righteous indignation at the actions of their government posed an embarrassing problem both at home and abroad. As governate [1] control extended throughout all the major media into publishing, this problem was no doubt easily remedied — just as Jimmy Carter’s recent and forthright book on the Israel-Palestine issue was dealt with so that it vanished quickly and orders placed for it never seemed to arrive.

Who doubts the ways? Who cares anymore? Only a fool would attempt to windsurf through the tsunami. As Americans and their shabby flocks of sheep around the globe are dumbed down in schools that only know how to teach students what they should think rather than that they should think, the book – that bound sheaf of pages once capable of transforming our world, of toppling tyrannies, and of installing principles as laws – will probably become yet another suspect curiosity, like humanism and liberalism. Kurt Vonnegut saw it coming too, but he did not believe in oblique or graceful criticism, particularly of a government so base, corrupt, criminal, and steeped in blood that it ranks with the worst tyrannies ever hatched upon this planet.

Known and very popular cialis coupon which gives all the chance to receive a discount for a preparation which has to be available and exactly cialis coupons has been found in the distant room of this big house about which wood-grouses in the houses tell.

"By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East?" he wrote recently. "Their morale, like so many bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas in December."[2] In his 2005 collection of essays, poignantly titled A Man Without A Country, he stated, "George W. Bush has gathered around him upper-crust C-students who know no history or geography." Such remarks infuriated the toadies and knaves who interviewed him during his final years, and none caused more furor than his comments to David Neson in The Australian regarding his admiration for terrorists: "I regard them as very brave people….

They [suicide bombers] are dying for their own self-respect. It's a terrible thing to deprive someone of their self-respect. It's [like] your culture is nothing, your race is nothing, you're nothing ... It is sweet and noble — sweet and honourable I guess it is — to die for what you believe in." Neson, a spiteful semi-literate catamite of the Murdoch propaganda machine, not only couldn’t understand what Vonnegut was actually saying, he spewed out insults worthy of a crapulent skinhead – indeed, so repellent, when one considers that the target was an internationally acclaimed 83-year-old writer known for his compassionate humanism, that Vonnegut’s son justifiably felt obliged to pen a blistering response, not so much in his father’s defense as against the Cro-Magnon non-thinking that can explode over half-grasped ideas yet cheer on a battalion of trained killers sent to wage war on an innocent population far away.

Slaughterhouse Five, arguably Vonnegut’s finest novel and unquestionably one of the greatest American novels of the Twentieth Century, is set against the fire-bombing of Dresden during WW II. This allied action, which utterly razed one of Germany’s most beautiful and architecturally unique cities, would have been treated as a war crime had Germany won the war, but the victor’s justice of Nuremberg obliged court prosecutors to unofficially define a war crime as anything the allies did not do. Vonnegut saw the “carnage unfathomable” firsthand, being one of only seven prisoners of war to survive the devastation, assigned by his Nazi captors the task of gathering charred corpses for mass burial.

This proved too immense a job and Vonnegut describes watching the Germans incinerate whatever human remains were left with flame throwers. The novel plays with time and space, not dwelling excessively on this horror. It may well be the first post-war novel to express sympathy for the enemy, although it is expressed in far larger terms, for Vonnegut’s concerns were for human beings as a species not a nationality. The novel was also published in 1969 when the atrocities of Vietnam were a far more pressing concern for most readers, and its anti-war theme, along with its stylistic leaps through space and time, often made it seem more relevant to the Sixties than it was to WW II. In a 100 years, no doubt, it will appear as timeless as it really is.

Vonnegut is sometimes referred to as a Sci-Fi writer. He has written novels — great ones too, like The Sirens of Titan – that could be assigned to the genre, yet in the context of his work as a whole these ‘sci-fi’ novels are ostensibly satires, the way Gulliver’s Travels could be regarded as a fantastical adventure story, but clearly is not. Vonnegut also plays with the sci-fi genre through one of his characters, Kilgore Trout, who appears in a number of different stories. Trout is a dreadful writer but has wonderfully rich story ideas. This has always summed up the genre for me, I’m afraid. With some notable exceptions — Heinlein particularly — science fiction teems with richly resonant plots and themes, a thousand mirrors held up to our world, yet only rarely does anyone do all this any justice in words.

More than any major post-war writer, Vonnegut is also playful. Often deadly serious, he does not take himself or even his work too seriously. Breakfast of Champions is the most extreme example of this, where felt-tip doodles illustrate, say, assholes, and Sternian digressions frequently tear at the novel’s very warp and woof. Indeed, I thought it a disaster when I first read the thing.

A re-reading, prompted by seeing the grossly underrated film with Bruce Willis and Albert Finney, utterly changed my mind. Further away from the sometimes excessively frivolous sixties, the novel is far less sloppy than I’d thought originally, and it is also far more serious. It ranks with Joseph Heller’s Something Happened as a masterpiece misjudged because we were immersed in the subject matter when we first read it so could not grasp many of the searing insights nor much of the staggeringly funny set-pieces. This may well be true of all Vonnegut’s work and much of Heller’s. But generations to come — somewhere, some time — will correct these aberrations, and no doubt marvel that such men once walked the earth. Walked it reviled, insulted or neglected too.

There are, and always have been, writers, artists, who believed their art ought not to deal with politics, or at least not contemporary politics. Saul Bellow states it in various novels, and he states it with a vague disdain for those who get involved with causes, wear lapel buttons, et cetera. Because causes change, excitement wanes, what once stirred us to passion barely stirs memory, or seems mere folly. I suggest Bellow is gutless, though, fearful he might lose the favour he so cherishes, the status, the kudos, the benign equilibrium of a man who never stood for anything, who let others achieve the freedoms he enjoys — and on top of this, he scorns them for it. A fine writer, no question, but a reader in 200 years will wonder why his voice is silent on the huge issues of our times. Vonnegut, Mailer, Heller, Vidal, Didion, Sontag, Burroughs, and others will form a choral pantheon, their art woven into the bloody fabric of an age in which their country amassed the most atrocious record for imperial barbarism, hypocrisy, corruption, violence, insatiable greed, blind inhumanity, and pullulating ignorance ever seen on the face of the earth. Those who kept quiet in order to keep their horded trinkets of reputation will seem as irrelevant as all those whose names we no longer even recall, whose works have vanished or turn to dust deep in the stacks of the Bodleian.

Farewell Kurt Vonnegut. You enriched my life immeasurably, and you always cared enough to tell the truth, no matter how hard it was for some to hear. History awaits you. Your years were a blessing to us all, time so very well spent.

[1] The fusion of corporations and government which was Mussolini’s definition of Fascism.

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