As usual, my blogging plans turned out to be way too ambitious when confronted with my limited free time. I originally had hoped to post about each story “matchup” in my “Vonnegut Short Story Madness” project, but now I’m going to try to write a post about each region. This post is about the War region.
My favorite pair of first round stories was “Souvenir” from Bagombo Snuff Box, and “Spoils” from Armageddon in Retrospect. The two stories are somewhat similar and deal with a topic that also came up last week at my Great Books Discussion Group. We were actually discussing Jean-Paul Sartre’s “The Wall” (worth a read also, by the way) and we somehow got on a sidebar of how commonly we hear of war veterans who “never talk about” their war experiences. I have an uncle like that, and another member of the group mentioned an in-law who had recently passed away and whose multiple decorations for valor were on display at the service. The member of our group, though he had known this man for many years, had “no idea” that he had been so honored.
WARNING: following content includes SPOILERS.
In the story “Souvenir,” a man (“Eddie”) hard up for cash decides to sell a “fantastic” pocket watch he’d “acquired” near the end of World War II. He wants five-hundred dollars for it, but the shady pawnbroker, to whom dealing and trading in such items was a game he played with relish and without mercy, begins to tirelessly haggle with him. He asks about the inscription on the watch, which neither can read since it is in German. He transcribes it onto a notepad and dispatches it off to a neighbor for a quick translation. Eddie then proceeds to tell the story of its acquisition, somewhere in Sudetenland near the very end of the war. A story where two German soldiers, a young blond man and an alleged General, try to surrender to Eddie and his buddy, Buzzer. The “surrender” is actually a ploy to kill Eddie and Buzzer for their uniforms in hopes that the Germans can then escape by passing themselves off as Americans. They originally pretend they are offering to buy the uniforms, first with German money (“Confederate Money!” as Buzzer complains) and later with the General’s watch, encrusted with four diamonds, a ruby, and gold.
Eddie and his friend are slow to catch on to the ploy, a slowness that costs Buzzer his life. Eddie, however, escapes with the pocket watch, which he has held onto until now. Re-living the experience leads Eddie to realize he doesn’t want to part with the watch, which we now understand was purchased at a great price indeed. He tells the pawnbroker, “Thanks for letting me know what it’s worth. Makes more sense to keep it as a souvenir.” The pawnbroker offers him his original price of $500 as Eddie is leaving the store. After he leaves, the translation is brought back from the neighbor: “To General Heinz Guderian, Chief of the Army General Staff, who cannot rest until the last enemy soldier is driven from the sacred soil of the third German Reich – Adolf Hitler.”
(below: General Guderian on the cover of Time Magazine; he actually survived the war, and was, controvesially, not prosecuted for war crimes (as many others were) – apparently, his actions were deemed those of a professional soldier.
Now, wasn’t I just speaking of twist endings in a recent post? Vonnegut liked to call these twists “mousetraps.”
The other story, “Spoils” tugs harder at the heart strings. “Paul” is another soldier who had once found himself in those mad, final days of the war. Now home long after the war, his wife has just returned from visiting a neighbor and tells him of the neighbor’s elegant silver service that she learned the husband had “liberated” from Germany at the end of the war. She shrewishly asks Paul why he “couldn’t have brought home something a little better” than he did (all he has is a bent Luftwaffe saber). He reminisces how “his first hours as a swashbuckling conqueror were his last,” and ponders “the thing that broke his spirit and … that tormented him” as he enters the realm of memory… He and his buddies are in the farming village of Peterswald, which is the midst of evacuation and then industrial scale looting. His comrades and encounter some Scotchmen participating in the looting who say, “You’re the victors, you know, you’ve a bloody good right to anything you like.”
His small band becomes swept up in the fervor and they select a house to pillage, but it has already been pretty much picked clean by others. The only thing intact is a child’s room with its toys and a lonely pair of children’s crutches. They eventually abandon their hopes of treasure and decide instead to focus on dinner, contemplating a feast including chicken, milk, eggs and “maybe even a rabbit.” They begin to scour the farms to prepare their table. Paul searches the barn of the house they had attempted to ransack, at first finding nothing, but – just as he’s about to leave – he hears a rustling under some hay. There a rabbit has been hidden in a cage. Dinner! He quickly dispatches and skins and cleans the rabbit there in the barn and brings the main course to his friends. Not before he sees the family who owns the house return, though.
A “wave of remorse and sorrow billows in his chest” as he watches the boy enter the barn. Soon he hears the boy’s faint shriek and sees him emerge from the barn holding the lifeless pelt of his former pet rabbit to his cheek. Paul mentions nothing of this to his friends, and eats what for him must’ve been a joyless meal with them.
During the final days of the war, Paul’s friends acquired a sizable quantity of German treasure but “for some reason, all Paul brought home was one rusty and badly bent Luftwaffe saber.”
So, I awarded this matchup to the story “Spoils.” The final results of the “War Regional” are below. In the end, the regional champion turned out to be the story, “The Manned Missiles,” which, though it was tragic as well, also included hope. Hope for humanity and perhaps even for an end to war. I wrote about that story once before on my blog. You may find that post here if you’re interested.
Next up, results from The Love Regional. Stay tuned