MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Finding the Key: Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See

“What do we call visible light? We call it color. But… really, children, mathematically, all of light is invisible,” is the lesson that beams in on the short-wave radio. The hyper-curious, gifted, white-haired German orphan Werner Pfennig and his sensitive sister Jutta listen in, escaping through the invisible waves for a moment from the coal-mining town of Zollverein.

This is just one of many memorably etched moments in Anthony Doerr’s new novel, All the Light We Cannot See. I became a fan of Doerr’s writing last year when his short story collection Memory Wall fell into my hands. Doerr possesses the rare gift of a distinctive style that avoids mannerism and that endows his characters — well, most of them — with depth and compassionate believability.

The beauty of Doerr’s fiction is both stylistic and structural. His lyrical, keenly observed prose in All the Light We Cannot See supports a meticulously crafted and layered narrative. The narrative follows a more or less old-fashioned model, using a thriller plot as the engine for what is really of interest: the development of its two main characters, the blind French girl Marie-Laure and Werner, as the horrors of the Second World War grimly unfold around them.

Doerr dextrously interleaves different points of view while time-warping back and forth from the climactic scenes in the walled port city of Saint-Malo on the Brittany coast, just after D-Day in the summer of 1944. The tone similarly blends aspects of a fable with penetrating realism.

I agree with William T. Vollmann‘s assessment that one major flaw is the two-dimensional portrayal of Sgt. Maj. Reinhold von Rumpel: an almost comic-book Nazi villain hell-bent on his quest for a rare blue diamond known as the Sea of Flame. This Nazi’s “wickedness and physical loathsomeness are offset by nothing that could make him into a rounded character,” observes Vollmann. “His unbelievability exemplifies a mistake writers often make when describing monsters.”

And Vollmann captures the “old-fashioned” quality of Doerr’s achievement here when he notes that All the Light We Cannot See “is more than a thriller and less than great literature. As such, it is what the English would call ‘a good read.'”

Here’s how the author explains what he means by the title:

It’s a reference first and foremost to all the light we literally cannot see: that is, the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that are beyond the ability of human eyes to detect (radio waves, of course, being the most relevant).

It’s also a metaphorical suggestion that there are countless invisible stories still buried within World War II — that stories of ordinary children, for example, are a kind of light we do not typically see. Ultimately, the title is intended as a suggestion that we spend too much time focused on only a small slice of the spectrum of possibility.

Why continue to write about WWII? Doerr from his NPR interview with Arun Rath:

We’re losing thousands of people for whom World War II is memory every day. In another decade, there will be nobody left — very very few people left — who can remember the war. And so history becomes something that becomes slightly more malleable.

And I worry about how my own sons, my 10-year-old sons, are learning about the war, whether it’s through video games or the History Channel. Often, particularly politicians, they’re often presenting the war as a very black-and-white narrative. I worry that that’s dangerous. I think it’s important to empathize with how citizens come to a certain point, and you know, that might be a more meaningful way to try and avoid what had happened.

Filed under: book recs, literature

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