After two somewhat disappointing books, I finally picked up a book I’ve had since at least my birthday. My experience with Kurt Vonnegut remains slimmer than I’d like, with most of it locked away in adolescent memories now slipping beyond the horizon of my mind. So it feels a little odd to be reading Armageddon in Retrospect, theoretically his last work (unless his estate publishes more unpublished tidbits), already. But I did, and I don’t regret it. Clap me in irons if you must!
I’m at a loss for what to say, though. For people who have read Vonnegut and know what to expect, there is nothing much to add. This is a bunch of stories written by Vonnegut. They have that classic Vonnegut feel for language simple in syntax yet fiendish in semantics. Most of them have something to do with war, with World War II, with the bombing of Dresden … at every level Vonnegut examines the assumptions and rationalizations we attempt to internalize about the morality of conducting war. Even the stories that are more removed from this setting, such as “The Unicorn Trap” or “Armageddon in Retrospect” are very much about the horrors that humans perpetrate in the name of the greater good.
The highlight of this collection for most people will be Vonnegut’s final speech, which he finished but could not deliver before his death. Because I am so young and came to Vonnegut so late in his career, this speech, as one of the first if not the only non-fiction work of Vonnegut’s that I’ve read, greatly affected me. It let me see how the humour and his sardonic spin on things is not just something that saturates his fiction. His speech is peppered with jokes—including one about a man who was smuggling wheelbarrows, which I found hilarious—and absurd asides. All the while, this humour is working towards a more serious end.
Sometimes we laugh because, if we don’t, we’d have to cry … I think that’s kind of what Vonnegut is doing. He has seen so much that he is not afraid to point out the bad and the good, particularly when it comes to an entity like the United States of America. Vonnegut can critique something while still loving it; this is an ability I feel is on the decline today, when the average level of political rhetoric involves the slinging of epithets about being anti-American or intellectually elitist or, heaven forfend, a science-loving atheist. That’s the brilliance of Vonnegut: he may at times be irreverent, but his is a classy form of irreverence, the type that wipes its shoes on the map before busting into your home and breaking into “The Galaxy Song”. So Vonnegut’s speech, as well as this book in general, provide a nice summary of why his writing is so powerful. His is a voice that speaks not for a generation or for a people or for a school of thought but merely out of a conviction that all humans deserve a healthy dose of dignity and levity.
By far my favourite story, however, has to be “The Commandant’s Desk“. It is told from the point of view of a Czech cabinetmaker whose village has just passed from Russian hands to American ones. He considers this at first to be a cause for celebration and hope: the Russians were cruel masters, as bad as the Nazis, and he had been planning a little surprise for the Russian commandant, who had “requested” a grandiose desk. But, in the not-so-surprising Vonnegut twist, the American commandant turns out to be just as unsympathetic and unstintingly oppressive. The story finally comes full circle with a second twist, which results in a reveal of what the cabinetmaker had been planning all along. In the end, Vonnegut reminds of the dangers of romanticizing the nobility of soldiers (of any nationality) or the justness of occupying another land.
Vonnegut’s writing continues to have a timeless quality to it. His stories have ideas and themes that apply just as much to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as they do to World War II or Vietnam. Illustrations are interspersed between each story, and two in particular—colourful doodles on sticky notes—caught my eye. The first reads: “Darwin gave cachet of science to war and genocide” and the second, “In the U.S.A. it’s winners vs. losers, and the fix is on”. The latter is very easy to interpret in light of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The former seems to be an indictment of the “survival of the fittest” justifications for things like Aryan supremacy or eugenics, though it goes beyond that: thanks to evolutionary theory, there’s now a “scientific” rationale for making war, because only the strong should survive! Anyway, I just enjoyed these illustrations too.
Not much else to say about this book. For those who are less experienced with Vonnegut or new to him entirely, Armageddon in Retrospect might be harder to grok; I’m sure I will get more out of it when I revisit it after having continued my survey of his oeuvre. Confirmed Vonnegut fans will like it. There’s nothing here that is sensational or eye-opening; no secret unpublished gem lurks between these pages. But it is yet another set of compelling thoughts on the relationship between absurdity and necessity that always seems to arises in discussions of war.