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Tom Chaney. R759 review: Earth Day column redux

Of Writers and Their Books No. R759 : First appeared Earth Day 22 April 2007 in the Hart County Herald five years ago. Appropriately this column ending with "Requiem" first appeared on Earth Day in 2007 and is appearing on Earth Day again in 2012. The featured author, Kurt Vonnegut, died April 11, 2007 as a result of a fall. So it goes. - Robert Stone
The next earlier Tom Chaney column : R758A review: The Legend of Pope Joan

By Tom Chaney

And so it goes

Kurt Vonnegut, whose dark comedy and compelling moral vision informed a generation disaffected with Vietnam, the destruction of the environment, and the depersonalization of a consumer society, died last week at 84.

While he wrote plays, short fiction, and essays, his novels spoke most forcefully to a countercultural generation. Here in the Bookstore his works are among the most requested titles. Not one of them ever gathers dust.

Vonnegut, born in 1922 in Indianapolis, had begun college when he enlisted in the army during World War II. Isolated behind enemy lines in Germany during the Battle of the Bulge, he was captured and sent to a prisoner of war camp in Dresden. On February 13, 1945, the Allied High Command destroyed Dresden with three waves of British and American bombers. After first laying a saturation of high explosives, the bombers dropped hundreds of thousand incendiary devices. The city burned for a week. About 135,000 died.

"We didn't get to see the fire storm," Vonnegut wrote. "We were in a cool meat-locker under a slaughterhouse with our six guards and ranks and ranks of dressed cadavers of cattle, pigs, horses, and sheep."

After the fire-storm, the prisoners emerged to find that "everything was gone but the cellars where 135,000 Hansels and Gretels had been baked like gingerbread men. So we were put to work as corpse miners, breaking into shelters, bringing bodies out."

Twenty-five years later, during the Vietnam War, he was able to talk about Dresden. Finally he could "talk about something bad that we did to the worst people imaginable, the Nazis."

That experience formed the basis for his seventh novel Slaughterhouse-Five, or the Children's Crusade: a Duty-Dance with Death. In that novel Billy Pilgrim, a chaplain's assistant and the character based upon Vonnegut himself, discovers the horror of war.

"You know -- we've had to imagine the war here, and we have imagined that it was being fought by aging men like ourselves," says a British officer in the novel. "We had forgotten that wars were fought by babies. When I saw those freshly shaved faces, it was a shock. My God, my God -- I said to myself, 'It's the Children's Crusade.'"

As a writer of science fiction, Vonnegut led that genre in some new directions.

His vision of the world is compared to that of Mark Twain -- bleak, dark, and primarily devoid of hope. His villains were not individuals but culture, society, and history which were destroying the planet.

He suggested a message to be carved into a wall of the Grand Canyon for flying saucer creatures: "We probably could have saved ourselves, but we were too damned lazy to try very hard . . . and too damn cheap."

Vonnegut ends Slaughterhouse-Five with a phrase which became a mantra for those opposed to the Vietnam War.

"Robert Kennedy, whose summer home is eight miles from the home I live in all year round, was shot two nights ago. He died last night. So it goes.

"Martin Luther King was shot a month ago. He died, too. So it goes. And every day my Government gives me a count of corpses created by military science in Vietnam. So it goes."

His last book - a 2005 collection of essays - A Man Without a Country - concludes with a poem by Vonnegut - "Requiem." It closes with these lines:
When the last living thing
has died on account of us,
how poetical it would be
if Earth could say,
in a voice floating up
from the floor
of the Grand Canyon,
"It is done."
People did not like it here.
Kurt Vonnegut died last week as a result of a fall. So it goes.

Box 73/111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2012-04-22 04:07:17
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