Monday, July 7, 2014

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

“ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE” by Anthony Doerr (4th Estate / Harper-Collins, $NZ34:99

I approach reviewing this new American novel, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, with some trepidation. Merely by describing it, I may easily give the impression that it is a poetic masterpiece, and I certainly do not think that. It is an intelligent novel at the upper end of the pop novel market, and very enjoyable as such. But it is no masterpiece, and it does occasionally strain at symbolism in ways that become quite arch. Also, I hesitate to give away too much of the novel’s plot. All the Light We Cannot See is, after all, a new novel. While I might be happy to give synopses of novels that have been around for some time, I think it is unmannerly of reviewers to spike all the surprises that a new novel tries to hold in store for readers, and especially new novels, like this one, that have complex surprise-filled and sometimes suspense-filled plots.
Why should a reviewer damage one of the chief skills of a writer, which is to keep readers engaged with a good yarn?
So having virtuously begged off ruining your enjoyment of the novel, I assure you that all I give here is the set-up.
All the Light We Cannot See is told throughout its 530-odd pages in the present tense. This, I suspect, is because its two leading characters are children who grow into adolescence. The present tense preserves the youthful immediacy of their experiences as the story jumps backwards and forwards in time.
In France in the 1930s, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is the young daughter of a functionary at the Museum of Natural History in Paris – the man in charge of security and locking things up. Marie-Laure has acquired from her father a deep interest in the natural world, and especially in plants and sea-creatures. But in early childhood she is stricken with blindness. Patiently, her father Daniel LeBlanc teaches her how to find her own way in the world when she is without sight, and coaches her in Braille so that she can enjoy the novels of Jules Verne. When war comes, and when Paris is threatened with bombing, Daniel helps to crate up the treasures of the museum and have them scattered to safer places. Then he flees from the invading Nazis, taking Marie-Laure to the walled Breton city of Saint-Malo where his uncle Etienne lives. From the novel’s opening pages we know that something catastrophic will happen here, as the novel’s prologue takes place during the 1944 bombing of Saint-Malo, which reduced most of that historic city to rubble.
Meanwhile in Germany, told in chapters that run parallel with those about Marie-Laure, there is the growing-up of the equally likeable kid Werner Pfennig. He and his sister Jutta are orphans. They grow up in an orphanage in a working class town. Werner’s apparent destiny would be to live and die as a coal-miner, the way his father did. The orphanage is run by a kindly French woman, so little Werner has no animosity towards the French. However, this being the 1930s, he inevitably becomes part of the Hitler Youth. He is as gentle a soul as Marie-Laure is. Like Jutta, he deplores the bullying and thuggery that is encouraged in both the Hitler Youth and, later, the army. But, to escape the dead-end life his working-class background would otherwise deliver him, he is willing to allow his one great talent to be exploited by the army. Werner happens to be a genius with wireless telegraphy. Not only can he fix effortlessly any damaged radio that is brought to him, but he can also understand the technique of triangulating radio signals so that he can pinpoint the origin of any broadcast. He finds himself used by German forces to track down any radios operated by partisans or resistance forces in countries the Nazis have occupied.
Anthony Doerr captures something of the enforced enthusiasm – almost suppressed hysteria – of the Hitler Youth and other organizations for Nazi youth in passages such as this:
It seems to Werner as if all the boys around him are intoxicated. As if, at every meal, the cadets fill their tin cups not with the cold mineralized water of Schulpforta but with the spirit that leaves them glazed and dazzled, as if they ward off a vast and inevitable tidal wave of anguish only by staying forever drunk on rigor and exercise and gleaming boot leather. The eyes of the most bullheaded boys radiate a shining determination: every ounce of their attention has been trained to ferret out weakness...” (pp.262-263)
He also suggests a theme of how Werner’s essential good nature has been corrupted by his love of technology, in passages such as this, where Werner is helping in the business of tracking down, and killing, members of national resistance movements:
Sometimes days pass after hearing a first transmission before Werner snares the next; they present a problem to solve, something to wrap his mind around: better, surely, than fighting in some stinking frozen trench, full of lice, the way the old instructors at Schulpforta fought in the first wear. This is cleaner, more mechanical, a war waged through the air, invisibly, and the front lines are anywhere. Isn’t there a kind of ravishing delight in the chase of it?” (pp.344-345)
The very structure of the novel tells us that somehow the lives of the blind teenaged French girl and the callow teenaged German soldier will intertwine. Yet, despite its time-and-place-specific plot, despite details on German army life and life in occupied France, this is less an historical novel than a symbolic novel. The characters often appear to float in an ether of the author’s own devising. By having children or adolescents as his focus, Anthony Doerr creates a certain historical decontextualization. These characters are only minimally aware of politics or the social structure of their countries. So the setting is sometimes almost surreal, as the characters strain against the novel’s heavily-layered symbolism.
Werner is addicted to radio, remember, and therefore perceives much of the world through the sense of sound, just as the blind Marie-Laure does. Werner and Marie-Laure are both, in effect, orphans and ruled by the strange noises of their world. Am I straining my interpretation to see Anthony Doerr as attempting to re-create the particular ethos, world-picture or mind-map of the world before television, in which radio was the everyday, household miracle and events were easily perceived in terms of voices, sound-effects and music? Of course there is a sinister side to this phenomenon. One of the epigraphs to the novel is a quotation from Josef Goebbels saying “It would not have been possible for us to take power or to use it in the ways we have without the radio.” Sweet airs and voices are corrupted, just as Werner is corrupted by technology.
The novel is at its most lyrical when it conveys how the blind Marie-Laure experiences the world:
Colour – that’s another thing people don’t expect. In her imagination, in her dreams, everything has colour. The museum buildings are beige, chestnut, hazel. Its scientists are lilac and lemon yellow and fox brown. Piano cords loll in the speaker of the wireless in the guard station, projecting rich blacks and complicated blues down the hall toward the key pound. Church bells send arcs of bronze careening off the windows. Bees are silver; pigeons are ginger and auburn and occasionally golden. The huge cypress trees she and her father pass on their morning walk are shimmering kaleidoscopes, each needle a polygon of light.” (pp.44-45)
Much later, this lyricism is pushed to extremes when the action has moved to Saint-Malo:
 “To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air. Marie-Laure can sit in an attic high above the street and hear lilies rustling in marshes two miles away. She hears Americans scurry across farm fields, directing their huge cannons at the smoke of Saint-Malo; she hears families sniffling around hurricane lamps in cellars, crows hopping from pile to pile, flies landing on corpses in ditches; she hear the tamarinds shiver and the jays shriek and the dune grass burn; she feels the great granite fist, sunk deep into the earth’s crust, on which Saint-Malo sits, and the ocean seething at it from all four sides, and the outer islands holding steady against the swirling tides; she hears the cows drink from stone troughs and dolphins rise through the green waters of the Channel; she hears the bones of dead whales stir five leagues below, their marrow offering a century of food for cities of creatures who live their whole lives and never once see a photon from the sun. She hears her snails in the grotto drag their bodies over the rocks.” (pp.390-391)
Now unless the author intends us to believe that Marie-Laure is endowed with supernatural powers, there is no way that this passage can be read literally. Marie-Laure, no matter how much blindness may have rendered her hearing more acute, could not possibly hear the great majority of these things. This passage (and many others like it in All the Light We Cannot See) serves a double purpose. First, it allows the author to paint a description, very lyrically, of Saint-Malo and its environs. Secondly, it rhapsodises over the faculty of hearing and its possibilities.
Without destroying the novel’s development for you, I should add that there is a third leading character in this novel, introduced a little later than the other two. This is the Nazi officer Reinhold von Rumpel, who is in search of a particular treasure in ways that make his path cross those of Marie-Laure and Werner. Without going into the particulars of the case, I see symbolism sustaining this part of the novel, too. Von Rumpel’s obsession with something beautiful that will give him power is like a parody of the Nazi’s mythologisation of their own conquests and the racial mysticism that cloaked brute force.
I think I have given you the flavour of the novel in these comments, which scrupulously avoid “spoilers”. I regret that there is a German character called “Frederick” when Anthony Doerr could just as easily have called him “Friedrich”, in line with the other authentically German names in the book. I think Marie-Laure’s reading of Jules Verne comes close to being a cliché concerning the way thoughtful French kids spend their time, but at least it ties in with the girl’s curiosity about the natural world. For all its lyricism, however, I enjoyed reading this book as a good story, even if its main characters do have to bear such a heavy freight of conscious symbolism.

Typically annoying footnote: Oh Dear. I know I’m a pedant, but I can’t help noticing these things, and when I read a novel with an historical setting, I’m afraid I’m always on the lookout for anachronisms. And I found at least one in All the Light We Cannot See. In 1940, according to the novel, a radio ham boasts of all the stations he has been able to hear from France and he says “I got Pakistan once” (p.135). This is very clever of him, given that the nation of Pakistan did not exist until 1947.


  1. Thank you for noting the Pakistan anachronism! Maybe I am a pedant but that absurd error deflated the book instantly for me.

  2. While the German boys are in school in the fall of 1940 and the winter of 1941, there are occasional references to German troops at the front: boys being notified of fathers lost in combat, or troop trains carrying soldiers to the front.

    The German army was not fighting on any front between the capitulation of France in June 1940 and the formation of the Afrika Korps in March 1941. It was not fighting on any front in continental Europe until the invasion of Yugoslavia in April; the Eastern Front was not opened until the invasion of the Soviet Union in June.

    Thus, I am not sure if troop movements and reports of combat would have been as salient to the boys at this time as the story suggests.

  3. There is no anachronism with using Pakistan. The names used by shortwave broadcasters do not necessarily align with those of specific nations, and many are named for propaganda purposes, ie, the Voice of America. Some are even clandestine operations for political purposes. The term Pakistan was used from the early 1930's, formed to represent a region that longed for independence, precisely the situation that would spawn such a broadcaster. That the Persian and Urdu translation of Pakistan means "Land of the Pure" adds a bit of a special metaphorical meaning for me when used in this novel.

    1. This is a very ingenious explanation, but I do not think it holds water and I still regard the use of the term in this novel as an anachronism. I am fully aware that, in the early 1930s, Mr Jinnah and his supporters had hit on the neologism "Pakistan" when, in a London hotel, they first mooted a Muslim state separate from India. Even so, the term was not in common usage in the period the novel covers and is highly unlikely to have been used by a European radio-ham of the time.