‘The Commandant’s Desk’

‘The Commandant’s Desk’ is one of the “new and unpublished writings on war and peace” in Armageddon in Retrospect, Vonnegut’s first posthumous publication (a second, Look at the Birdie, has since been released). In many ways it is not a typical Vonnegut story – that honour falls to ‘Great Day’, with its mix of folksy narrative voice and time travel. It is certainly science fiction in that it presents us with the aftermath of a war between Russia and America, but there is nothing futuristic about it and it seems likely it is based (as most of the writing in this book is) on Vonnegut’s experiences in the aftermath of the Second World War.

In the story American troops liberate / occupy (take your pick) a small town in Czechoslovakia which had previously been held by the Russians. The story is told form the perspective of a Czech carpenter who has experience of both the First (“I lost my left leg as an Austrian infantryman in 1916”) and Second (“three deep nicks near the iron tip, for the three German officers whose car I sent down a mountainside one night in 1943”) World Wars. To the narrator, the arrival of the Americans is a blessing:

“Now praise God, I was seeing Americans again…Knowing this day was coming had kept me alive.”

In expectation, he has hoarded a bottle of Scotch under the floorboards to celebrate their arrival. However, when the American commander, Major Evans, enters his shop he finds himself treated with contempt. When Evans discovers the narrator can speak English, he comments, “Good for you, Pop.”

“He made me feel like a small dog who had cleverly – for a small dog – fetched him a rubber ball.”

He refuses to shake the narrator’s hand, and when offered whatever he needs from the shop, he assumes the narrator is simply afraid rather than grateful. Evans is contrasted with Captain Donini, whose manner is much more conciliatory. The difference is plain – Evans has experienced years of conflict and Donini hasn’t:

“It was hard to imagine him on a battlefield and it was hard to imagine the major anywhere else.”

Evans spots a desk that the narrator had been making for the Russian commandant:

“I’d designed it as a private satire on the Russian commandant’s bad taste and hypocrisy about symbols of wealth.”

Evans, however, also finds the “hideous piece of furniture” appealing and intends to take it for his office, once the hammer and sickle has been replaced by an eagle. Vonnegut’s point is clear – only the symbols change.

The attitude of Evans is echoed in that of the American soldiers. They are not as bad as the Russians or Nazis, needing to get drunk before their worst behaviour and embarrassed when women or old men stand up to them, but they regard the townspeople as little better than enemies and soon the town has “the atmosphere of a prison.” Eventually the narrator and his daughter drink the whisky while he reminisces about the time when her mother was alive and she was a “young pretty and carefree girl.”

In another story the Major might have been a sympathetic character. We discover that he lost his family in the war, and that he is so numbed by the fighting he wishes he had been killed, and only longs to be transferred to Leningrad where pockets of resistance still hold out. Vonnegut, however, does not let him off so lightly:

“So what are you trying to tell us – that we are all doing penance for the death of the major’s family?”

The narrator has also suffered but his voice remains rational and considered throughout, though a twist at the end shows that all are eventually corrupted by war.

It is not clear when this story was written, but it obviously has a lot to say to contemporary America despite it rather 1950s style World War Three setting. As is often the case with Vonnegut his incomprehension and cynicism fight it out, and neither one is the victor.

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