These lusty, ruddy vocalists were among the first English-speaking prisoners to be taken in the Second World War. Now they were singing to nearly the last. They had not seen a woman or a child for four years or more. They hadn't seen any birds, either. Not even sparrows would come into the camp.
The Englishmen were officers. Each of them had attempted to escape from another prison at least once. Now they were here, dead-center in a sea of dying Russians.
They could tunnel all they pleased. They would inevitably surface within a rectangle of barbed wire, would find themselves greeted listlessly by dying Russians who spoke no English, who had no food or useful information or escape plans of their own. They could scheme all they pleased to hide aboard a vehicle or steal one, but no vehicle ever came into their compound. They could feign illness, if they liked, but that wouldn't earn them a trip anywhere, either. The only hospital in the camp was a six-bed affair in the British compound itself.
The Englishmen were clean and enthusiastic and decent and strong. They sang boomingly well. They had been singing together every night for years.
The Englishmen had also been lifting weights and chinning themselves for years. Their bellies were like washboards. The muscles of their calves and upper arms were like cannonballs. They were all masters of checkers and chess and bridge and cribbage and dominoes and anagrams and charades and Ping-Pong and billiards, as well.
They were among the wealthiest people in Europe, in terms of food. A clerical error early in the war, when food was still getting through to prisoners, had caused the Red Cross to ship them five hundred parcels every month instead of fifty. The Englishmen had hoarded these so cunningly that now, as the war was ending, they had three tons of sugar, one ton of coffee, eleven hundred pounds of chocolate, seven hundred pounds of tobacco, seventeen hundred pounds of tea, two tons of flour, one ton of canned beef, twelve hundred pounds of canned butter, sixteen hundred pounds of canned cheese, eight hundred pounds of powdered milk, and two tons of orange marmalade.
They kept all this in a room without windows. They had ratproofed it by lining it with flattened tin cans.
Okay, I know that is a really long passage. Usually, Vonnegut's sections are fairly short. Like little prose poems or flash fictions, strung together for cumulative effect. This particular one, however, is very prosy, although it has the building momentum of a poem, especially when it comes to the unbelievable list of food hoarded by the Englishmen. It goes on and on, becoming more and more incredible, right up to the two tons of marmalade at the end.
I love great writing, and Vonnegut is a great writer. Each time I type a section from Slaughterhouse, I wonder how it came into being. Vonnegut once wrote, "Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible.
To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding
of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story
themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages." That was one of his eight basic rules for creative writing. Of course, at the end of his list, he said Flannery O'Connor broke every one of his rules. So it goes.
When I go to readings of any kind--poetry, fiction, non-fiction--I always wait for one moment to occur. It's a breathless moment, where the author reads something that just knocks the wind right out of me. I can always tell when it's happening. The audience becomes as still as a group of cloistered monks. Everybody sort of leans forward in their seats, as if their lives depend on the next word spoken. And then, when it's over, there's a sort-of gasp or intake of oxygen from every person in the room. It's like Houdini has just appeared mid-stage in a flash of light.
That's great writing. I heard Kurt Vonnegut read once. The whole reading was a breathless moment, because we all knew we were in the presence of a god. And Vonnegut sort of sucked up all of the air in the room. It was amazing. (In a side note, Maya Angelou did the same thing when I saw her read.)
I am planning to go to a poetry reading tonight. Several poets who are releasing books together. It's at the top of a beautiful hotel, with a view of Lake Superior. I am hoping to be breathless for most of the evening.
Saint Marty is thankful today for great writers.