November 21, 2012
There is a longer title to Kurt Vonnegut’s famous novel: “Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death, by Kurt Vonnegut, a Fourth-Generation German-American Now Living in Easy Circumstances on Cape Cod [and Smoking Too Much], Who, as an American Infantry Scout Hors de Combat, as a Prisoner of War, Witnessed the Fire Bombing of Dresden, Germany, ‘The Florence of the Elbe,’ a Long Time Ago, and Survived to Tell the Tale. “
Of Dresden he says: “It wasn’t a famous air raid back then in America. Not many Americans knew how much worse it had been than Hiroshima, for instance.”
He isn’t the only one to try to imagine what it is like to be on the other side – although, in some sense, that is also his side.
That problem with “sides” is also Louise Erdrich’s. Known almost exclusively as a Native American author, she was in fact born to a German father and a Chippewa mother. Her eighth novel, The Master Butchers Singing Club, begins with its protagonist, Fidelis Waldvogel, walking 12 days to get home and sleeping 38 hours once he gets there. “When he woke in Germany in late November of the year 1918, he was only a few centimeters away from becoming French on Clemenceau and Wilson’s redrawn map.”
The novel ends with two of Fidelis’ sons, Erich and Emil, enlisted in the German army in World War II, and his other two sons, Franz and Markus, enlisted in the U.S. army. It ends with French, Native American, and German words embedded in the English: “Adeline est morte. Elle est morte et enterrée. Ina’he’kuwo’ Inahe’kuwo’. Ich weiss nicht was soll es bedeuten.”
Words not translated. A reminder to American readers that their language tells at best a quarter of the story.