Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut
(Berkley Publishing Group, 2008, 232 pages)
As a college student in the 70s, I, like many of my fellow students, was a huge fan of Kurt Vonnegut. His irreverent, satirical novels somehow spoke to my generation with their wry observations on the human condition and pessimistic view of bureaucracies, bores, and bombast. I was therefore intrigued by Armageddon in Retrospect, a compilation of unpublished writings related in some way or another to war. With an introduction by his son, Mark, this book gives us one last peek into the mind of this author, who was a humorist on the scale of Mark Twain or Will Rogers.
When Vonnegut died at age 84 in 2007, America lost a shrewd observer of the human condition and a very funny writer. Having read pretty much all of his other books, many of them more than once, I have always appreciated his wit and unusual writing style. Spare, concise and sometimes accompanied by his own drawings, Vonnegut’s books dwelt on themes of industrialization, futurism and free will.
The book includes a speech that Vonnegut was supposed to deliver in Indianapolis but he died before delivering it. Like his writing, it is filled with short, sometimes biographical factoids and wry observations on Karl Marx, religion, and African-Americans.
As his readers learned in 1969 when Slaughterhouse 5 was released, Vonnegut was taken prisoner after only 5 days on the front during World War II and he spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner. This final book includes his non-fiction account of his experiences, including the burning of victims of the Allied bombing of Dresden. A copy of a letter he sent to his family after being freed is also included. It also provides more detail on his capture, transport and treatment by his German captors.
The rest of the stories, although somewhat uneven, relate in some way to issues of war and peace. Some of them come directly from his experience as a P.O.W.. Prisoners in a camp speculate on what meals they will eat after they are released. A soldier confronts and ultimately kills another American who had returned to Germany to fight for the Nazis. A Czech cabinetmaker is forced to build an elaborate desk for the commanding officer of an American occupying unit.
Each of these stories give us an insight into how Vonnegut’s style and thinking evolved over the years. As a counter-cultural hero, Vonnegut appealed to my generation’s cynicism and his sharp-witted jabs at the follies of warfare endeared him to beats, college students, and peaceniks of all types. This final volume puts a period on the career of this troubled, but gifted, writer.