Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Book: Mother Night

Ok. How much do I love Kurt Vonnegut, and how much did I love this book?

HOW MUCH? A whole lot. A lot, a lot, a lot.

So, the incomparable Kurt Vonnegut: what can I say that hasn't been said already? Sharp, funny, clear, insightful without being smarmy, a true American voice (I don't even know what the means, but clearly he is that) -- he just speaks to me. His writing goes straight to my heart like almost nobody else. I don't even know what it is exactly; I find myself tearing up over and over as I read it. He has a gentleness, contrasted with the sometimes harsh subject matter. I feel as if it's my heart reading the book, not my mind.

Howard Campbell, American playwright living in Germany, is recruited by the American forces to serve as a spy. His duties will include writing vitriolic, hate-filled progaganda to support the Nazi cause, while simulanteously broadcasting secret messages through a code made up of pauses, inflections, certain words. Although he does not agree with the Nazis, he is very, very good at his job. Too good.

So good, that later, after the war, he is one of the most-hated, most-wanted war criminals. His beloved wife is gone; most likely she is dead. His parents have disowned him. He has no friends. Through the intervention of his recruiter, General Wirtanen, he is free... but is he really?

It's a story of what happens during the war, and after the war, and long after the war. It's a story of love, lost love, and love found again. A story of bravery and cowardice. The ravages of war. Justice as determined by man, and justice as determined by God.

But to me, it's a beautiful showcase for Vonnegut's heartwrenching, deceptively simple writing, which reaches in and rips my heart out while tenderly whispering universal truths.

There are plenty of good reasons for fighting... but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too. Where's evil? It's that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on its side. It's that part of every man that finds all kinds of ugliness so attractive. It's that's part of an imbecile that punishes and vilifies and makes war gladly.

...and I, hiding from many people who might want to hurt or kill me, often longed for someone to give that cry for me, to end my endless game of hide-and-seek with a sweet and mournful -- "Olly-olly-ox-in-free."

So many beautiful passages in this book. Do I love the parts about the love and the love lost, or the parts about war and the aftermath? I love them both. I love the dilemma -- are you a patriot, are you a good person -- if you commit the highest crimes against humanity "for a good cause" -- even if you're on the "good" side? Are you innocent or not? When you play a part so well... where does the acting end and the real you begin?

And again I am reminded why I cried when the word came that Kurt Vonnegut died. I don't usually cry when celebrities die. But I cried for George Harrison, and I cried for Vonnegut.

"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."
"Make love when you can. It's good for you."


Stefanie said...

I've read Slaughtehouse Five and enjoyed it in spite of all the brutality. I will have to give this one a go sometime.

Daphne said...

Stefanie: you should -- not much brutality, just theoretical brutality. Very thoughtful story.

Nymeth said...

I feel the same way about it. He manages to be so tender, so gentle, even when the situations almost demand cynicism. He was one of the best. I haven't read this one yet, but clearly I have to.