2011-04-14

A cheerful apocalypse

"One time," said Castle, "when I was about fifteen, there was a mutiny near here on a Greek ship bound from Hong Kong to Havana with a load of wicker furniture. The mutineers got control of the ship, didn´t know how to run her, and smashed her up on the rocks near 'Papa' Monzano´s castle. Everybody drowned but the rats. The rats and the wicker furniture came ashore."
That seemed to be the end of the story, but I couldn´t be sure. "So?"
"So some people got free furniture, and some people got bubonic plague. At Father´s hospital, we had fourteen hundred deaths inside of ten days. Have you ever seen anyone die of bubonic plague?"
"That unhappiness has not been mine."
"The lymph glands in the groin and the armpits swell to the size of grapefruit."
"I can well believe it."
"After death, the body turns black - coals to Newcastle in the case of San Lorenzo. When the plague was having everything its own way, the House of Hope and Mercy in the Jungle looked like Auschwitz or Buchenwald. We had stacks of dead so deep and wide that a bulldozer actually stalled trying to shove them toward a common grave. Father worked without sleep for days, worked not only without sleep but without saving many lives, either.
[...] Anyway, one sleepless night I stayed up with Father while he worked. It was all we could do to find a live patient to treat. In bed after bed after bed we found dead people. And Father started giggling," Castle continued. 
"He couldn´t stop. He walked out into the night with his flashlight. He was still giggling. He was making the flashlight beam dance over all the dead people stacked outside. He put his hand on my head, and do you know what that marvelous man said to me?" asked Castle.
"Nope."
"'Son', my father said to me, 'someday this will all be yours.'"
Kurt Vonnegut, as a prisoner of war, was a survivor of the Dresden bombings and helped to bury the dead afterwards. I suspect it could have been this experience that turned him in to the furious humorist that he was. The novel "Cat´s Cradle" (Sw. "Vaggan") is a black comedy about the end of the world, about an invention far more lethal than the hydrogen bomb come into the hands of children. The narrator is the journalist Jonah, or John, who is writing a book about one of the father´s of the atom bomb.

I don´t want to tell you too much about what actually happens. The story has some of the absurd quality of Douglas Adams´ Hitchhiker-series, but there is an unmistakable, red-hot anger here that you don´t find in Adams, who´s only in it for the laugh. Vonnegut is dead serious in his jest.

The psychiatrist Finn Sk√•rderud says in one of his essays, on the subject of what some parents gaily put their kids through, that he can´t make up his mind whether these people are evil or just stupid. Or both. Or perhaps evil and stupidity is the same thing. Vonnegut would have thought so. In this story, published in 1963 but by no means dated, he portays the archetypal scientist-father as a perpetual, egocentric child, completely unconcerned with anyone or anything other than his own amusement. He is brilliant and dangerous in unimaginable ways.

A third author that comes to mind is Zola. When he, in "Germinal", wanted to describe the death of hundreds of people, he mirrored it through a panicked old mining horse´s horrible death, to get at his audience´s hearts and make them cry. Vonnegut does no such thing. He laughs and invites the reader to laugh with him. Because when everybody is dead, who is going to weep? No, the last survivors of Vonnegut´s apocalypse are a cheerful bunch. They live their lives as best they can, to the bitter end. Even the tears they do shed, are subject to laughter. And that is Vonnegut´s concern: the end of us all. Not something many of us can picture, but as a survivor of Dresden, that seems to have been at the heart of Vonnegut´s entire body of work.

Spoiler-warning: A central, but invisible, character is the mysterious Bokonon, a guru and founder of a new religion, hiding in the forrest. The narrator returns to his teachings throughout the book, uses his ideas to try to make sense of what happens. Only on the very last page does Bokonon materialize. What we see is a self-portrait of Vonnegut himself: a traumatized, homeless war-veteran, a stranded Ulysses, a compulsive writer of crazy verse. Or a Job, perhaps, but not humbled. Bokonon looks up at God and gives him the finger.

Vonnegut makes you laugh, but he breaks your heart at the same time. And he writes beautifully. This book is a true classic. I can not recommend it too highly.

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