Saturday, June 4, 2016

Armageddon in RetrospectArmageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Now, if others will rid the earth of vanity, ignorance, and want, mankind can live happily ever after."

Kurt Vonnegut died on April 11, 2007, two weeks before he was scheduled to give a lecture in Clowes Hall, Indianapolis, the city of his birth. The text of this address is one of the pieces in Armageddon in Retrospect (2008), a posthumous collection of Vonnegut's previously unpublished writings assembled and prefaced by his son, Mark, who actually delivered the lecture on April 27, 2007.

The speech is a totally fascinating mix - quite typical for Mr. Vonnegut - of the deep, the provocative, the hilarious, and the outright silly stuff. How can one not love the morbidly funny passage "As a Humanist, I love science. I hate superstition, which could never have given us A-bombs."

Vonnegut is mainly known for his masterpiece Slaughterhouse Five , one of the best books I have ever read, and for several other novels that combine penetrating social critique with elements of science fiction (for example, Breakfast of Champions ). The author returns to the Allied catastrophic bombing of Dresden in February of 1945, which is the main topic of Slaughterhouse, in the third piece of the set, Wailing Shall Be in All Streets, where he repeats:
The death of Dresden was a bitter tragedy, needlessly and willfully executed. The killing of children - "Jerry" children or "Jap" children, or whatever enemies the future may hold for us - can never be justified.

The remaining stories in the collection are focused on the themes of war and peace. Three of them have made strong impression on me. In Great Day the narrator describes how he joined the "Army of the World" in 2037 and sort of participated in the 1918 bloody Second Battle of the Marne. I am wondering whether Mr. Vonnegut saw Zbigniew Rybczyński's magnificent short film Steps, which shows American tourists from the 1980s immersed in the famous Odessa Stairs massacre scene from Eisenstein's 1925 movie Battleship Potemkin. Vonnegut's short story is almost as powerful as Rybczyński's film and has perhaps a more intriguing ending.

Spoils is a sickeningly sad story about Allied soldiers looting German houses immediately after the end of the war in 1945. The title short story, which happens to be the last piece in the collection, is only tangentially related to the theme of war. Instead - in the best Vonnegut's tradition - it is wickedly and intelligently funny. It also contains the wonderful quote that I used for the epigraph. Regarding this pearl of wisdom, though, I am afraid that if we miraculously managed to eliminate human vanity, stupidity and greed, nothing would remain of our civilization.

Three and a quarter stars.

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