Cat’s Cradle

In Novel on October 15, 2004 at 12:48 am

cats-thumb.jpgCat’s Cradle (1963)
by Kurt Vonnegut

It’s Kurt Vonnegut again (I read his brilliant Slaughterhouse-Five before), and it’s the same crazy, fast paced entertaining satirical sci-fi story. This time it’s satire on Cold War and religion. It’s always very difficult to give synopsis of his book as the plot and situation tend to get very crazy. It never ceased to amaze me how Kurt Vonnegut can deliver a simple narrative of something that is actually very intricate, full of complex elements and agendas.

Story: The father of atomic bomb passed away and left his final scientific discovery to his three children. It is ice-nine, a dangerous chemical that enable water to freeze and locked up immediately upon contact. Due to some misunderstand the oldest brother fled to a primitive South American island and was appointed to be the next King. The islanders believed in a forbidden religion called Bokononism, founded by a mysterious Christ-like figure called Bokonon. A group of colorful characters get caught up in the affair that would eventually led to the end of world…

I’m far less engaged emotionally with Cat’s Cradle than I had with Slaughterhouse-Five, maybe because the impact of reading Vonnegut’s style is lessen the second time. But I think it’s because the story didn’t feel as personal as Slaughterhouse-Five did. But it was still a wonderful read with lots of snappy quotes and ideas.

So the religion founder Bokonon began his ‘bible’ with the first sentence: “All of the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies.” When people are suffering from poverty and hopelessness, ‘religion’ is a system of belief built on lies/fiction invented to make people feel better.

When no governmental or economical reform was going to make the people much less miserable, the religion became the one real instrument of hope. Truth was the enemy of the people, because the truth was so terrible, so Bokonon made it his business to provide the people with better and better lies.

Bokonon arranged with his partner (who ruled the island at that time) while Bokonon played the “good saint” role, the King were to play the “evil villain” role to outlaw him and his religion, so that “it give the religious life of the people more zest, more tang.” Good and evil are to be separate. It is called “Dynamic Tension” (a term inspired by muscle building ^^;;), a belief proposed that “good societies could be built only by pitting good against evil, and by keeping the tension between the two high at at all times.” This is how dichotomy works to better a society: you must believe the other (communism/muslim/whatever) is “evil” to be able to see yourself as “good.”

The text include many ‘teachings’ of Bokonon that areaa fun to read. They’re written in Calypso poem format, such as:

Tiger got to hunt,
Bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder, “Why, why, why?”
Tiger got to sleep,
Bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.

Then there’s the clash of the religion/lies versus science/truth. The current ruler of the island disagree with Bokonon. He believes “science is magic that works.” In the early chapter there was a view from the scientist that “the trouble with the world was that people were still superstitious instead of scientific” because “science was going to discover the basic secret of life.” But then it didn’t really matter because due to comedy of errors, the ice-nine was accidentally set loose and froze all the water in the world. The “truth” destroy of the world.

There were also some commentary about Americans and the world that ring true for 60s, 70s, now and always:

“I was very upset about how Americans couldn’t imagine what it was like to be something else, to be something else and proud of it. Americans are forever searching for love in forms it never takes, in places it can never be. It must have something to do with the vanished frontier.”

“The highest possible form of treason is to say that Americans aren’t loved wherever they go, whatever they do. Claire tried to make the point that American foreign policy should recognize hate rather than imagine love.”

No matter how easy and enjoyable the writings were, after Catch-22 and Cat’s Cradle, I need a break from war fictions.

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