ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

On the day after Memorial Day, we're going to take a unique look at war through the eyes of Kurt Vonnegut. The late author, himself a veteran, blended anti-war sentiment with satire, and he became one of the most popular writers of the 1960s, when Vietnam dominated the headlines.

SIEGEL: "Cat's Cradle"; "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater"; "Slaughterhouse Five"; and "Breakfast of Champions."

Tom Vitale tells us why these novels still have something to say.

TOM VITALE: The central theme in Kurt Vonnegut's fiction from the 1960s is the irrationality of governments and the senseless destruction of war. In a 1987 interview, Vonnegut told me he was determined to write about war without romanticizing it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

KURT VONNEGUT: My own feeling is that civilization ended in World War I, and we're still trying to recover from that. Much of the blame is the malarkey that artists have created to glorify war, which as we all know is nonsense and a good deal worse than that, Romantic pictures of battle and of the dead and men in uniform and all that. And I did not want to have that story told again.

VITALE: So he approached the subject with humor. His breakthrough to millions of readers came in 1963, with his fourth novel, "Cat's Cradle," about a secret military experiment called Ice Nine that leads to the destruction of civilization.

But his most striking anti-war statement came six years later and was quickly adapted by Hollywood.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE")

SIEGEL: (As character) This is Schlagthauf Finf. Finf is English five. Schlact is slaughter. Hauf is house. Schlagthauf Finf, Slaughterhouse Five, your house.

VITALE: "Slaughterhouse Five" depicts the firebombing of Dresden by Allied warplanes in 1945.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOMBING)

VITALE: The city was destroyed. More than 100,000 civilians were killed.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE")

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) You swine. (Speaking foreign language).

VITALE: The novel is semi-autobiographical. Like its hero, Kurt Vonnegut was an American POW, imprisoned in a Dresden slaughterhouse during the air raid.

VONNEGUT: The destruction of Dresden was my first experience with really fantastic waste.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

VONNEGUT: To burn down a habitable city, and a beautiful one at that. And so I was simply impressed by the terrible wastefulness, the meaninglessness of war.

VITALE: He highlights that meaninglessness by having his main character, Billy Pilgrim, become unstuck in time, reliving random moments of his life: as a young prisoner in Dresden and as a middle-aged optometrist, captured by aliens for an outer-space zoo exhibit.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE")

MICHAEL SACKS: (As Billy Pilgrim) You mean, I can't leave of my own free will?

VITALE: (As character) Mr. Pilgrim, we have visited 31 inhabited planets in the universe. We have studied reports on a hundred more. And only on Earth is there any talk of free will.

SACKS: (As Pilgrim) What will I do?

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (As character) You will aid in the removal of the bodies.

VITALE: The story struck a chord with young people facing the draft and a seemingly senseless war in Vietnam. Sidney Offit was the editor of Intellectual Digest when the book came out. Now he's editor of the new Library of America edition of "Slaughterhouse Five" and three other Vonnegut novels.

SIDNEY OFFIT: His reputation was so overwhelming among young people. And in a sense, his books were politicized in the culture. They were representative of a point of view that was sweeping the country.

Religion is a strong word, but it was almost a religious devotion. And that generates from serious critics who always talked with skepticism. If you are a serious literary critic, you are skeptical. Those young people are responding to what? There's nothing complex (unintelligible). The genius of it was its accessibility.

VITALE: And that makes the books readable today, says Offit: accessibility and their continued relevance.

OFFIT: There is a serious theme that runs through. And that theme, that concept of our inhumanity and our self-destruction and our irrationality, if anything it's becoming stronger. I mean, God, you read the Times in the morning, it seems like Kurt Vonnegut's worst nightmare has come true.

VITALE: In a 1991 interview, shortly after the first Gulf war, Vonnegut said he was saddened by what he saw in America.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

VONNEGUT: We have become such a pitiless people. And I think it's TV that's done it to us. When I went to war in World War II, we had two fears: one was we would be killed; the other was that we might have to kill somebody. And now killing is whoopee. It does not seem much anymore. To my generation, it still seemed like an extraordinary thing to do, to kill.

VITALE: Kurt Vonnegut was born on Armistice Day in 1922. He died four years ago at the age of 84. For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

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