(This week I read an absolutely smashing, genre-defying novel "Slaughterhouse-Five" by the American author Kurt Vonnegut.Because the basic premise of the book is the Dresden bombing by the Allied Forces towards the end of World War II,comparisons with another iconic war novel "Catch-22" are inevitable.I read it last year in a somewhat hurried fashion,but after reading "Slaughterhouse-Five",I re-read "Catch-22".)
Joseph Heller's "Catch-22"
For a novel which was initially rejected by several publishers,"Catch-22" rose to dizzying heights.Not only was it an international bestseller(spawning the eponymous phrase along the way),it went on to be regarded as one of the most important works of the 20th century.
The novel traces the trials and tribulations of Captain John Yossarian,a fighter pilot who is recuperating from injuries sustained during a mission.He soon realises that there is no such thing as free will when it came to fighting a war.The novel is peopled with eccentric and unforgettable characters like Doc Daneeka,General Peckem,Milo Minderbinder and the impossibly named Major Major Major.
Yossarian's frighteningly human fear for his life and his struggle to remain sane in a world quickly degenerating into insanity is nicely juxtaposed against the barbaric and inhuman excesses of war.What comes out is a pitch-perfect black comedy,scathing in its critique while remaining non-judgmental towards the characters.This is the famous passage from the book where Yossarian realises that he has to fly more missions,no matter what.
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle."That's some catch, that Catch-22," Yossarian observed."It's the best there is," Doc Daneeka agreed.
Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five"
This book is perhaps impossible to pigeonhole in a particular genre.Nothing like this had ever been written before,and even today it occupies a unique and important place in the canon of world literature.It combines elements of science fiction,metafiction,hysterical realism and fatalism to construct a frenzied,pulasting narrative that takes frequent leaps of space and time.
Billy Pilgrim,the central character,(some critics think that this name has been deliberately chosen as a riposte to Bunyan's medieval Christian text "The Pilgrim's Progress") has become "unstuck in time", that is,he views his past,present and future all at once,and at any given point of "conventional" time lives any moment of his life.
His experiences as a prisoner of war during the closing months of World War II form the crux of the novel.Vonnegut's distinctive writing style,consisting of short,sharp sentences ensures that short passages in the novel often have more meat to them than whole novels by lesser writers.
This is a once-in-a-lifetime achievement on the part of the writer,and surely Vonnegut's enduring classic will continue to enthrall generations to come,while striking a cautionary note against the terrors of war. (I have these two amazing novels on my laptop as e-books right now......so just e-mail me if you want to sample them!)