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Sunday, July 28

A man without a country

I never knew Kurt Vonnegut could be funny as this was a sight of him I never felt while reading Breakfast of Champions or Slaughterhouse-Five. I mean ironically funny in the way he mocks all important and worthwhile aspects of our lives: men, women, politics, writing, humour, history. A man without a country is a collection of essays that is rather a kind of personal manifesto of a man who feels no sense of belonging to any nation, let alone America. Kurt Vonnegut is a self-declared humanist, a socialist and a Luddite who questions his nation's choices and expresses his doubts about its future.

Kurt Vonnegut takes a dim view at the way things are in America nowadays, yet chooses to be humorous about it all and even solemnly tries to let readers know when he is serious or just joking. The bleak future and the people's attitude towards our planet and their lack of awareness is another one of Kurt Vonnegut's concerns.
The biggest truth to face now—what is probably making me unfunny now for the remainder of my life—is that I don’t think people give a damn whether the planet goes on or not. It seems to me as if everyone is living as members of Alcoholics Anonymous do, day by day. And a few more days will be enough. I know of very few people who are dreaming of a world for their grandchildren.

Some things, like the future of our planet, no longer seem derisive to the author who feels it is his responsibility to make people appreciative of the beauty of our planet and the legacy we leave our grandchildren. It is not pathos or false patriotism, it is his humanity above all that feels engaging and catchy. A man without a country is a collection of non-fiction essays that is not dedicated to literature lovers, it is the witty expression of a writer's concern towards the American society and path of humanity as it is.

Kurt Vonnegut uses both his humour and his bitterness to talk about fossil fuels, art, mass media, public libraries, chain-smoking, reliance on technology, and the use of semicolons. The book also takes on a personal note as the writer shares his lifetime passions and interests: his love of music, and his respect for Eugene Debs, Mark Twain, and Ignaz Semmelweis (a Hungarian obstetrician who changed the way doctors viewed personal hygiene when delivering babies). He is fearless in his mockery of the former American president, George Bush and his administration, the manipulation of the American people as far as the Arab world is concerned, the justifications behind the Vietnam war and even includes pieces of people's letters to him, questioning politics and political decisions. He has a funny answer to them all and is not afraid of calling things by their name:

The highest treason in the USA is to say Americans are not loved, no matter where they are, no matter what they are doing there.

But his talent lies in the little details. It is his description of simple people and insignificant encounters that reveals his subtlety and mastery of the art of writing. For instance, he openly declares his affection for a post office clerk who apparently goes to all this trouble to keep her customers pleased: One day she was wearing black lipstick. This is all so exciting and generous of her, just to cheer us all up, people from all over the world. It is again our human ability to find comforting meaning in the apparently unimportant details that unfold the beauty of people and things.

Behind the cynicism, the criticism and the bitter irony, Kurt Vonnegut manages to keep the readers alert and in a good mood. Sharing his concerns with other humanist friends, family members, socialist representatives or medical dreamers, Vonnegut tries to show his readers how life should be made the best of by those of us likely to be living longer than him- he was in his early eighties when he wrote the book. His endeavour is similar to Ignaz Semmelweis's display of self-sacrifice in trying to change the face and practises of humanity. His message may not be deep but it is easy to grasp: we are above all human beings who should make use of their common sense in everything they accomplish.