A Man Without A Country - Kurt Vonnegut

An awe-inspiringly original body of work.

Feature by Milo McLaughlin | 16 May 2006
Kurt Vonnegut has been through no end of shit in his 83 years: the suicide of his mother when he was just 22, his sister's death from cancer the same day that her husband was killed in a train crash, and of course the horror of surviving the 1945 Allied bombing of Dresden, where, as a soldier in the U.S. Army, he was being held as a prisoner of war. 135,000 people were killed in Dresden in one night, twice as many as at Hiroshima - a fact that few were aware of until it was brought to wider public attention by Vonnegut's masterpiece, 'Slaughterhouse Five'.

Along with 'Catch 22', by Vonnegut's friend Joseph Heller, 'Slaughterhouse Five' is widely held to be one of the most original and powerful anti-war books ever written. It is a unique combination of brutal autobiographical detail and inventive science fiction, interweaving Vonnegut's ingenious perspectives on the nature of time and space with (despite the odds) an enviable sense of humour and wit.

'Slaughterhouse Five' is just one novel amongst Vonnegut's awe-inspiringly original body of work. 'Breakfast of Champions', published in 1973, is a mind-blowing postmodernist black comedy which highlights the absurdities of the Western world with a savage simplicity. It's peppered throughout with his distinctively primitive illustrations and the author even makes a Hitchcockesque cameo appearance within the otherwise fictional story. Also essential reading are the short story collections 'Welcome to the Monkey House' and 'Bagombo Snuff Box', which clearly demonstrate the true breadth of Vonnegut's style, encompassing straightforward reportage, full-blown sci-fi and incisive insight into the human condition.

But now, nearing the end of his life, Vonnegut finds himself "A Man Without a Country". In his latest book he leapfrogs between topics and eras - like his 'Slaughterhouse Five' protagonist Billy Pilgrim - in a number of loosely structured non-fiction vignettes (first published in the American magazine In Our Times). He suggests that most positions of power in America have been infiltrated by psychopathic personalities, highly intelligent but completely without conscience, who were willing to enter "an endless war" for the sake of something decisive to do. He counts George W. among them of course (the book is subtitled 'A Memoir of Life in George W. Bush's America'), along with the "barely-closeted white supremacists" surrounding the U.S. President. He sums up their approach with a Shakespeare quote: "the Devil can cite scripture for his purpose."

Neither is he optimistic about the future of our race or the planet we are in the process of destroying. His 1963 novel 'Cat's Cradle' was a knife-sharp satire in which the combination of human stupidity and the advance of science for it's own sake leads to the destruction of the world through the fictional compound 'Ice-Nine', which causes water to solidify. Published in 1963, it was well ahead of it's time, and over forty years later Vonnegut remains in no doubt that our collective addiction to fossil fuels is bringing us closer than we can imagine to self-destruction.

Although some sections of the book make for depressing reading, Vonnegut is still able to find hope in his Humanist beliefs. He defines the Humanist creed as "to behave as decently, as fairly, as honourably as we can, without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife", and he speaks of the things that make life worth living for him: creativity, music and the fact that "we are here on Earth to fart around." His family and the basic pleasures of life are what has sustained him this long, and his humour and wisdom provide similar sustenance to those kindred spirits who also feel increasingly like strangers in their own lands.

Published by Bloomsbury. Out Now. Cover Price £14.99 http://www.vonnegut.com/