I have recently read two amazing novels about loss of innocence by authors who had similar experiences. Both witnessed the horrors of WWII: Kurt Vonnegut was at Dresden as it burnt down to ashes and J. D. Salinger was one of the first American soldiers to enter a Nazi extermination camp. Yet, they dealt with this differently in their work, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-5 is perhaps one of the most acclaimed anti-war novels whereas Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is set years after WWII. Salinger, like Vonnegut, deals with the loss of innocence his experience has caused but spares his hero the horrors he witnessed.
Salinger’s Holden Caulfield left quite an impression on me, like he did on lots of others. He opens the narrative with:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it.
This style of writing has been imitated countless times since but no one ever got near encapsulating the teenage angst like Salinger. There is a great irony here: Holden seeks someone to listen to him, to understand and empathise with him through the entirety of the book. He tries his luck with a prostitute and a couple of nuns, teachers and cab drivers… and all these adults fail him. Except Mr Antolini, a teacher from one of Holden’s previous schools. Holden greatly esteems and heeds his advice, yet, Mr Antolini disappoints and repulses Holden away by a perverted attempt to stroke his hair as he lies down half asleep.
But, the reader is always there, catching on his every word and truly sympathising with him despite his faults. Because he is just a teenager too scared to grow up and enter the “phoney” world of adults. Holden holds onto childhood innocence and purity, not just his own but of others. He wants to be a catcher in the rye: to push playing little children away to safety if they ever happened to get too close to the abyss of adulthood. This illustrates how adorably naïve he is, how much disconnected from reality… Yet no one seems to see his desperation and help him.
Vonnegut explores a similar theme quite differently. Unlike Holden, Billy loses his innocence in the most horrific way possible, by being exposed to the horrors of WW2 and the aerial bombing of Dresden. Billy Pilgrim gets “unstuck” in time and space. Unlike what his surname implies, his journey isn’t linear, neither does it have a clear destination. However, it all ultimately arrives to what he has seen in Dresden in an attempt to make sense of what he has seen, his guilt and shame. He feels guilty for being on the same side of the perpetrators, for being well off after the war, for surviving at all where 135,000 men, women and children indiscriminately perished.
His encounter with the alien Tralfamadorians is an attempt of absolution. These aliens entrap and display Billy in a zoo, paralleling his earlier experience of Nazi internment. There he explores and adopts Tralfamadorian philosophy of time and space: for them the past, present and future are simultaneous, everything is pre-determined. This fatalistic view leaves no room for moral culpability; everything just happens, have already happened and would always have happened. This could perhaps lift a heavy weight on Billy’s shoulders, but alas, he is human. He has a past, present, future and he has free will. He ultimately has to suffer the consequences of his actions, and of the actions of those he willingly sided. I sympathise with that: national pride is never without national guilt, and we all bear the scars of our pasts even if we believe in fate.
The novels end quite differently for their protagonists and the authors come to different conclusions about innocence. Holden finally finds someone to listen to him aside from the reader he continually distances from himself: his little sister Phoebe. She puts his red hunting cap on his head: the cap had always given Holden confidence but he was too embarrassed to put it on when people who know him were near. Now with his cap on, he is more equipped and ready to face the adult world on his own terms.
On the other hand, when Vonnegut’s narrative finally reaches the destruction of Dresden after much evasion, he leaves the scene to a bird tweeting, “Poo-tee-weet?” There is nothing to say in the face of a massacre, nothing that would bear more meaning than a bird’s tweeting. There is no explanation, there is no consolation, no possibility of restoring what has been lost: the lives of those killed and the innocence of those survived.
So it goes…