Armageddon in Retrospect

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Kurt Vonnegut was unusual among American novelists for his frequent return, in his fiction, to an incident early in his life that profoundly affected him. Armageddon in Retrospect, the first planned posthumous collection of his unpublished works, is a remarkably fitting capstone on a career that stretched for more than fifty yearsfor not only does that recurring incident reappear here, but it provides the unifying thread for the entire volume.

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The formative event took place near the end of World War II, in Dresden, Germany. Vonnegut, a private in the U.S. Army’s 106th Infantry Division, was captured by the Germans in mid-December, 1944, and imprisoned in Dresden, a city famed for its beauty where many noncombatant Germans sought safety. Two months after Vonnegut’s capture, he witnessed Dresden’s destruction by an Allied firebombing. As a surviving prisoner, he gained firsthand knowledge of the carnage, being assigned to a work crew disinterring victims, many of them women and children.

Vonnegut revisited this incident in several important works, most famously in his novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). Although the historical incident remained the same, from work to work, successive works were varied in their approaches to the theme of individual responsibility. For Vonnegut, an individual may act as if innocent and may feel innocent of wrongdoing. Nevertheless, in the face of universal culpability for the horrors of war, the sensitive individual must confront the issue of personal responsibility in some way.

Armageddon in Retrospect takes the reader back to Vonnegut’s Dresden experiences with a strikingly effective summary, written by him only months after the events, as a letter to his family. The letter’s dry, sardonic style anticipates his later fiction, as in this brief note on the firebombing: “On about February 14th the Americans came over, followed by the R.A.F. Their combined labors killed 250,000 people in twenty-four hours and destroyed all of Dresdenpossibly the world’s most beautiful city. But not me.”

Earlier in this letter, Vonnegut had written about the captured Americans who died from shock in the delousing showers, after days of starvation, thirst, and exposure; then he added, “But I didn’t.” In echo, the phrase “But not me” appears several times, prefiguring the author’s later use of repeated phrases in his novels.

This typewritten document, “Letter from PFC Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., to his family, May 29, 1945,” is presented in facsimile form. The subsequent short memoir, “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets,” provides more details and relates incidents from the liberation of Dresden that have their own echoes in the short stories to follow:The occupying Russians, when they discovered that we were Americans, embraced us and congratulated us on the complete desolation our planes had wrought . . . but I felt then as I feel now, that I would have given my life to save Dresden for the World’s generations to come. That is how everyone should feel about every city on Earth.

To describe the book’s structure in musical terms, Armageddon in Retrospect is a theme-and-variations composition. Vonnegut’s letter of May 29, 1945, and the short memoir state the thematic elements, while the subsequent stories provide artistic variations. Consistent with his own varied literary background, Vonnegut treats his theme through the approaches of science fiction, semiautobiographical fiction, historical fiction, fable, and even semireligious fantasy.

No notes accompany these stories to indicate if they are of older or of recent vintage, or whether perhaps all were written in the last years before Vonnegut’s death. The quality of writing, however, is consistently high throughout.

Among the most memorable short stories, for the bleak notes they strike, are “Great Day” and “Happy Birthday,...

(The entire section contains 1602 words.)

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