Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Mother Night, by Kurt Vonnegut

When I was growing up, one of the household rules forbade asking my father about his experiences as a medic in WWII France.  My mother said he never discussed what he did or saw there.  Not with her, and as far as she knew, not with other veterans, either.  I had a few friends whose fathers who had also fought in Europe or the Pacific and were equally tight-lipped about it.

As I was reading Mother Night, I really began to appreciate the difficulty in portraying war by those who were in it for those who were not.  The Nazis captured Kurt Vonnegut during the Battle of the Bulge, and he survived the Allied destruction of Dresden only because the Germans locked up his group of POWs in an underground slaughterhouse.  Yes, Slaughterhouse No. 5.  His was most definitely first-hand experience.

So how to describe the indescribable, the incomprehensible?  Hemingway took one approach, by paring his language down to the barest essentials. Vonnegut turned to black humour.  That, I've realised, is a walk on a high wire. Use humour unwisely, and you risk being read as frivolous or cruel. You need to portray the insanity of war while keeping your narrator relatively sane -- if he sounds as loony as the circumstances, he's got no credibility.  In Howard W. Campbell, Jr., Vonnegut finds this exquisite balance.

The People's Radio: It broadcast only German radio frequencies
Campbell is an American citizen who grew up in Germany, spent the war doing radio propaganda broadcasts for the Nazis in which he encoded spy messages for the Americans.  Is Campbell a devoted Nazi, or a devoted American?  Neither one.  He's a writer, devoted to his art and his German actress wife, Helga.

The story takes place years after the war's end, when Campbell is pursued by Israelis who want to try him for war crimes:  "I was high on the list of war criminals, largely because my offenses were so obscenely public."

Campbell, however, never took his radio broadcasts seriously.  He never really took Nazism seriously. Like, one suspects, the majority of Germans, he just wanted to get on with his life.
It wasn't that Helga and I were crazy about Nazis. I can't say, on the other hand, that we hated them. They were a big enthusiastic part of our audience, important people in the society in which we lived.
They were people.
Only in retrospect can I think of them as trailing slime behind. 

When the somewhat shady American spy-master approaches him,  Campbell insists that he an an apolitical artist, working at his "peaceful trade."  No one, the spy-master assures him, is neutral in war-time.
He shook his head. "I wish you all the luck in the world, Mr. Campbell," he said, "but this war isn't going to let anybody stay in a peaceful trade. And I'm sorry to say it," he said, "but the worse this Nazi thing gets, the less you're going to sleep like a log at night."
"We'll see," I said tautly.
"That's right -- we'll see," he said. "That's why I said you wouldn't give me your final answer today.You'll live your final answer."

 As part of his work for the Nazi propaganda machine, Campbell dreams up the idea of the Free American Corps -- a group of American POWs who fight the Russians ("the Mongol hordes") under a German banner.  This corps, Cambell admits, "was not a howling success. Only three American POWs joined. God only knows what became of them."  Campbell also (and with equal incompetence) devised the uniforms and logos for this absurd venture, and his father-in-law remarks upon the unit's device.
There were thirteen stars around the head of the eagle, representing the thirteen original American colonies. I had made the original sketch of the device, and since I don't draw very well, I had drawn six-pointed stars of David rather than five-pointed stars of the USA. The silversmith, while lavishly improving on my eagle, had reproduced my six-pointed stars exactly.
It was the stars that caught my father-in-law's fancy. "These represent the thirteen Jews in Franklin Roosevelt's cabinet," he said.
"That's a very funny idea," I said.
"Everyone thinks the Germans have no sense of humor," he said.  

Much as he would like to believe otherwise, Campbell's efforts as a sane man trying to impersonate a Nazi do have an impact.  An appalling impact.  His became the voice of an apparently sane Nazi.  His father-in-law, who had never been very fond of him, gives Campbell one particularly chilling compliment at the end of the war.
"You could tell me now that you were a spy, and we would go on talking calmly, just as we're talking now. I would let you wander off to wherever spies go when a war is over. You know why?" he said.
"No," I said.
"Because you could never have served the enemy as well as you served us," he said. "I realized that almost all the ideas that I hold now, that make me unashamed of anything I may have felt or done as a Nazi, came not from Hitler, not from Goebbels, not from Himmler -- but from you." He took my hand. "You alone kept me from concluding that Germany had gone insane."  

And there it is, amidst all the excruciating irony and humour -- the moral of the story, which Mr. Vonnegut hands us in the very first line of his Introduction:
This is the only story of mine whose moral I know. I don't think it's a marvelous moral; I simply happen to know what it is:  We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.  

1 comment:

  1. I like this "advice', "...Use humour unwisely, and you risk being read as frivolous or cruel. You need to portray the insanity of war while keeping your narrator relatively sane -- if he sounds as loony as the circumstances, he's got no credibility". Thanks, enjoyed your posts :)


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