In 2000 I was going through a ‘love affair’ with the works of Kurt Vonnegut, and when I went on a research trip to St. Petersburg I finally found and bought his Slaughterhouse-Five, the novel that alluded to Vonnegut’s imprisonment and survival in the Dresden raid. The rest, as usual, is history: I was researching in the day, and as soon as I’d get to my spartan hotel room and have a cup of soup I’d be reading Slaughterhouse-Five. I’m aware that the way I’m speaking of this book makes it sound like it was un-realistic, if compared to Russian literature about war. This is obviously not true. What is true, however, was that on my then memory Vonnegut was the first author who reached out to my experience. The subtitle of his novel – The Children’s Crusade – and the fact that his characters were more or less of the same age as me simply forced me to put myself in their place and to read the book, as if it was my story.
What I quite love about Slaughterhouse-Five is its Tralfamadorian dogma of everything taking place simultaneously, namely the past, the present and the future existing together at once. I don’t share it, but I do appreciate its connection to the subtitle, and how the subtitle can give a focus to the novel.
The chidren’s crusade per se is a disputed historical fact. If trusted, then in the 13th c. multitudes of children from Western Europe had assembled for the journey to the Holy Land, but on their way either perished or were sold into slavery. This is an irrational and dubitable fact, and in addition to telling us how strange and dark were the Middle Ages, it also brings into question the validity of war (Second World War in our case). But regardless of whether or not this fact had actually taken place, it belongs to the medieval period. And in medieval painting, as we know, one and same picture (~a depiction of a saint’s life) very often told the story of an event in the past, in the present and in the future. The view is obviously very similar to how Tralfamadorians saw life. So, this is the first, ‘historical’, interpretation of the subtitle that gives a focus to the novel, as well.
The second, ‘psychological’ interpretation connects the subtitle to the children’s attitude to death (basically as something that is not real) and to the possibility of living through all things at once. Consider the games where in the space of a small room children ‘locate’ a ship, a castle and a battlefield; and also the games where events are shuffled, skipped or repeated, depending on the game’s scenario and rules. If we speak of children playing war, everyone always remains alive (otherwise no players would be left).
The two themes in the ‘psychological’ interpretation are explored in Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (The Playing Man), published- incidentally – in 1938. In children’s games, everything that is happening is not happening ‘for real’, and whoever is killed will rise again. Billy Pilgrim’s journeys through time in Slaughterhouse-Five resemble this childish indiscernment between the real and the imaginary. But when this inability (or unwillingness?) to underpin oneself in the boundaries of physical world reappears in an adult, the question rises: did these adults ever begin to see the difference between the real and the non-real?
The children’s crusade therefore becomes ever more emblematic, as it not only symbolises the selling of children to war and the irrationality of war, but also underlines this infant disbelief in the tragic nature of things as the form of fatalism that stems from a convinction in the unlimitedness of time, space and, ultimately, a human life. Children are therefore not simply those who are young, but those who take life for granted and play by the rules of fate, denying free will.