Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Mother Night

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Mother Night (1961)
Well, this is an odd one. Kurt Vonnegut draws you in with his characteristically timeless and engaging prose, conversational and forever scattering arrestingly surreal images in one's path; so it's probably technically impossible to be bored, unless you're some sort of twat; and he draws you in whilst writing something which doesn't quite add up, or at least didn't for me. It's decent, but compared to the others I've read, it doesn't quite get there.

Mother Night represented an earlier stopping point in Vonnegut's continuing mission to describe that which cannot be described, or at least earlier than Slaughterhouse Five which did a better job of dealing with the atrocities of the second world war specifically by acknowledging that the horror is simply too big, and that one can only describe it by showing it to be beyond description. Here we have a representative of the American Nazi party awaiting trial in Israel whilst backtracking through the misdeeds which ultimately put him there. He is initially a character which cannot be defended, an architect of the holocaust by word if not deed; and so we are invited to examine all aspects of his character except for those pertaining to that which can be neither excused nor forgiven. All very well, except this is all undone near the conclusion of the book once we discover our boy to be the ideological opposite of that which we believed him to be, and so he faces execution knowing he must maintain the illusion of his war crimes, I suppose becoming something of a Christ figure. The implication of the title, taken from Goethe's Faust, would suggest that we are each of us the stuff of darkness, coming to the light only through acts of will, through education and moral evolution. This squares well with what I gather to be Vonnegut's take on morality, namely that its absence relates to ignorance rather than anything specifically evil; although this also seems close to the notion of original sin, which possibly confuses things.

The problem with Mother Night is that, whilst it's a fairly straightforward narrative, it attempts a few too many about-turns with our understanding of its main character and the message becomes confused so it doesn't quite hang together so well as it might. I suppose this is odd considering how Slaughterhouse Five played the same cards whilst juggling time travel and a narrative occurring in what may as well have been random order, and that Slaughterhouse Five got it right. Mother Night still does more than most authors would attempt and is obviously worth a read, but he wrote better.

1 comment:

  1. Good review although it struck far more of a chord with me when I read it as a young adult. In fact, come to think of it it's probably the most influential novel I've ever read and has played a big part in making me the cantankerous, uncompromising, often deeply irritating adult I am today.
    Incidentally there's also an excellent film adaptation of this starring Nick Nolte and John Goodman....