Archive for the 'Fiction' Category

Listen: Kurt Vonnegut on the firebombing of Dresden

April 14th, 2007

Billy went into his bedroom, even though there were guests to be entertained downstairs. He lay down on his bed, turned on the Magic Fingers. The mattress trembled, drove a dog out from under the bed. The dog was Spot. Good old Spot was still alive in those days. Spot lay down again in a corner.

Billy thought hard about the effect the quartet had had on him, and then found an association with an experience he had had long ago. He did not travel in time to the experience. He remembered it shimmeringly–as follows:

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He was down in the meat locker on the night that Dresden was destroyed. There were sounds like giant footsteps above. Those were sticks of high-explosive bombs. The giants walked and walked. The meat locker was a very safe shelter. All that happened down there was an occasional shower of calcimine. The Americans and four of their guards and a few dressed carcasses were down there, and nobody else. The rest of the guards had, before the raid began, gone to the comforts of their own homes in Dresden. They were all being killed with their families.

So it goes.

The girls that Billy had seen naked were all being killed, too, in a much shallower shelter in another part of the stockyards.

So it goes.

A guard would go to the head of the stairs every so often to see what it was like outside, then he would come down and whisper to the other guards. There was a fire-storm out there. Dresden was one big flame. The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn.

It wasn’t safe to come out of the shelter until noon the next day. When the Americans and their guards did come out, the sky was black with smoke. The sun was an angry little pinhead. Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead.

So it goes.

The guards drew together instinctively, rolled their eyes. They experimented with one expression and then another, said nothing, though their mouths were often open. They looked like a silent film of a barbershop quartet.

So long forever, they might have been singing, old fellows and pals; So long forever, old sweethearts and pals–God bless ’em–

§

Tell me a story, Montana Wildhack said to Billy Pilgrim in the Tralfamadorian zoo one time. They were in bed side by side. They had privacy. The canopy covered the dome. Montana was six months pregnant now, big and rosy, lazily demanding small favors from Billy from time to time. She couldn’t send Billy out for ice cream or strawberries, since the atmosphere outside the dome was cyanide, and the nearest strawberries and ice cream were millions of light years away.

She could send him to the refrigerator, which was decorated with the blank couple on the bicycle built for two–or, as now, she could wheedle, Tell me a story, Billy boy.

Dresden was destroyed on the night of February 13, 1945, Billy Pilgrim began. We came out of our shelter the next day. He told Montana about the four guards who, in their astonishment and grief, resembled a barbershop quartet. He told her about the stockyards with all the fenceposts gone, with roofs and windows gone–told her about seeing little logs lying around. There were people who had been caught in the fire-storm. So it goes.

Billy told her what had happened to the buildings that used to form cliffs around the stockyards. They had collapsed. Their wood had been consumed, and their stones had crashed down, had tumbled against one another until they locked at last in low and graceful curves.

It was like the moon, said Billy Pilgrim.

§

The guards told the Americans to form in ranks of four, which they did. Then they had them march back to the hog barn which had been their home. Its walls still stood, but its windows and roof were gone, and there was nothing inside but ashes and dollops of melted glass. It was realized then that there was no food or water, and that the survivors, if they were going to continue to survive, were going to have to climb over curve after curve on the face of the moon.

Which they did.

§

The curves were smooth only when seen from a distance. The people climbing them learned that they were treacherous, jagged things–hot to the touch, often unstable–eager, should certain important rocks be disturbed, to tumble some more, to form lower, more solid curves.

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.

§

American fighter planes came in under the smoke to see if anything was moving. They saw Billy and the rest moving down there. The planes sprayed them with machine-gun bullets, but the bullets missed. Then they saw some other people moving down by the riverside and they shot at them. They hit some of them. So it goes.

The idea was to hasten the end of the war.

Kurt Vonnegut (1969), Slaughterhouse-Five, chapter 8.

Kurt Vonnegut (1922–2007) was an American novelist known for his works blending black comedy and science fiction to illuminate the human condition. His most famous work, Slaughterhouse-Five, or the Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death, written in 1969, drew from Vonnegut’s own experience in World War II, where he was captured by Nazi forces and witnessed the firebombing of Dresden as a prisoner of war. After surviving the bombing in a meat locker, he and his fellow prisoners were put to work by their guards cleaning up bodies until they were found and freed by Soviet forces in May 1945. Before the publication of Slaughterhouse-Five, few people in English-speaking countries knew about the bombing of Dresden and it was rarely discussed by historians of the war.

Vonnegut died at the age of 84 on Wednesday, April 11, in Manhattan, New York, from complications related to a fall in his home.