A single experience can change a person forever, simply because it compels them to bear witness for the rest of their lives and to find new ways in which to do so. Had it been merely a matter of talent, Kurt Vonnegut would have been a competent, perhaps gifted, writer of the sort of paperback sci-fi and thrillers he produced in his early career neat phrases and a blistering satiric edge that stayed just on the cosy side of nightmarish.
What we now know is that he was teaching himself basic skills in order to do something considerably more ambitious. He had a vocation to tell the world what he had seen. From Slaughterhouse-Five onwards, he revealed the extent to which he was a haunted man, not only by the bombing of Dresden in 1945, which he had witnessed as a prisoner of war there, but by the loss of the illusion that his country was intrinsically good. Vonnegut was a patriotic American with no doubt that the Nazis had to be fought. He also believed with every bone in his body that the virtuous mission of destroying Fascism had been stained with the blood of civilian victims to gratify a spirit of vengeance alien to the better angels of the republic he served.
At his best which, alas, does not include all that much from this thin collection of previously unpublished fiction, essays and speeches he was a splendid preacher of American populism at its most radical. At his worst, he was still always funny and sometimes refreshingly vulgar. In the middle, he reminded us of the practicalities of nightmare; there is a solid and suspenseful story here about killing a fellow PoW for collaborating.
One piece is a straightforward memoir of what Corporal Vonnegut did, and saw, in the war. Others look to the future: one attempt to prevent war by making the soldierly enact valour in the middle of shadows of past battles brought forward by science, another by trapping the Devil who makes us fight once and for all. In a time of war and nightmare, Vonnegut's last works remind us that we can always simply say no to the whole horrible business. Even when individual pieces are weak, he was still bearing witness and speaking with the authority of one whose inner eye had been scarred by it.
Roz Kaveney's 'Superheroes' is published by IB Tauris
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