Sunday, February 12, 2017

All the Light We Cannot See

I joined a book club recently. I've always avoided book clubs because I have always preferred choosing my own books to read. But this can get lonely, can it not? Since I am alone most of the time, I need more outlets for being social. So I chose to give up the freedom of choice in order to have someone to talk with about the book. Our first book was Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, one of my favorites, and our second and most recent was Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See. Ironically it was my pick. I lobbied to read this Pulitzer Prize winner because I was half done with it already.

All the Light We Cannot See is a lovely book about World War II. It poetically tells the tale of two young protagonists one French and one German, bouncing back and forth between their third person present narratives. Marie-Laure is a blind girl living in Paris with her father who is a locksmith for the Natural History Museum while Werner is a German boy who is an orphan in a coal mining town who has a talent for electronics. As the war progresses we follow her exodus from Paris to a seaside town and his joining the Hitler youth eventually evolving into a soldier.

The use of language is lovely in this book. One of things he does is use the term "light" very creatively. After finishing the book I had time before my book club to do some research. Using my Kindle app, I searched for the word "light." The first reference to light is in one of the first short chapters called "Bombers" where the German bombers over Paris are described as "threads of red light." The book is full of imagery like this. In the chapter titled "Saint-Malo" he describes the town of the same name as "In stormy light, its granite glows blue." In the chapter titled, "Around the World in 80 Days" the narrator says that "The huge cypress trees she and her father pass on their morning walk are shimmering kaleidoscopes, each needle a polygon of light." The story is great in this book but it this beautiful poetic writing that captivated me.

Much of the lovely language about light comes in the chapters about Marie-Laure which is ironic because she is blind. In the Werner chapters, most of the references to light are his flash light (aka "field light") when he is in a coal mine or under the rubble of a bombed out building. In the chapter, "Cellar" his field light is described as a single light bulb that "casts everything in a wavering shadow." Of course, he is blinded in a different way, he is the citizen of a totalitarian regime where "light," the metaphorical kind, is frowned upon. The weak are sought out and destroyed.

In great works of literature you can sometimes find the philosophical heart of the book in a particular chapter. This is what a high school student might call the book's theme. In Moby Dick, it is in the chapter called "The Sermon" where Father Mapple builds his sermon about humility around the story of Jonah. In Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, the chapter "Snow" is the philosophical essence of the book. For All the Light We Cannot See, the chapter is "The Professor" and probably the two chapters following. When they were very young, before the war, Werner and his sister Jutta's greatest joy came during "lights out" when they listened to a science show on the radio.  Werner's favorite episode is when the professor talks about light:
"The brain is locked in total darkness, of course, children ... It floats in a clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light. And yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light.  It brims with color and movement. So how, children does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?"
He goes on connecting the light from the sun to coal:
"Consider a single piece glowing in your  family's stove. See it, children? That chunk of coal was once a green plant, a fern or reed that lived one millions years ago, or maybe two million, or maybe one hundred million. Can you imagine one hundred million years? Every summer for the whole life of that plant, its leaves caught what light they could and transformed the sun's energy into itself. Into bark, twigs, stems. Because plants eat light, in much the way we eat food. But then the plant died and fell, probably into water, and decayed into peat, and the peat was folded inside the earth for years upon years --- eons in which something like a month or a decade or even your whole life was just a puff of air, a snap of two fingers. And eventually the peat dried and became like stone, and someone dug it up, and the coal man brought it to your house, and maybe you yourself carried it to the stove, and now that sunlight --- sunlight one hundred million years old --- is heating your home tonight ----"
"Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever."
In the very next chapter, "Sea of Flames," which is about a diamond Marie-Laure's father is hiding from the Nazis, she says this about the diamond, it "is like a piece of light from the original world. Before it fell. A piece of light rained to earth from God."

So what is the light we cannot see? It must be important for it is the prominent symbol and an eponymous reference by our author. The light we cannot see is that which we do not have, all that we do not see or understand. The characters relationship to light is very important in this novel. The ephemeral voice on the radio says, in the next chapter "Open Your Eyes," that from a scientific stand point that "all light is invisible." This makes me think that even that which we can see, we don't understand fully. For Marie Laure, because she is blind, she doesn't have the delusion that she understands the world because she can see it for what it is, darkness. Like the shadows in Plato's cave or in Werner coal mines of Zollverein, by seeing the world we don't understand it. We have small slivers of knowledge and delude ourselves about our wisdom.

For Werner, the world is even smaller for him. Even though he has sight, what he sees is a world being taken over by the Third Reich. He is being manipulated, acknowledges it and has little no power to overcome it. His only show of resistance is his freewill which he uses in small clandestine ways throughout the book. For him, (*spoiler*) light is "metallic," "wintery," "faint," "watery," "alien," foreshadowing his destiny of doom. Light plays tricks and seems futile. It makes him think of "corpses" when looking at a group of mannequins. He is not in a good place. He asks, looking at the carnage of war: "Why bother to make music, when the silence and wind are so much larger? Why light lamps when the darkness will inevitably snuff them?" This is harsh contrast to the "pearly" light that "seeps" into the apartment where Marie-Laure is hiding. When Werner finally sees her up close, the light "outlines her in silver." For Werner's sister, light only comes to her in dreams, "settling on a field like snow." Late in the book up until Werner's death, Jutta is more a dreamlike character that seems to only exist in his thoughts and memories, living in an old pre-war world, behind the lines, where he will never return. 

For Marie-Laure's great-uncle, Entienne, light is a thing of fear. He recalls the flares, "the very lights," that were used during his time in the military in World War I. They gave sight to snipers to shoot down the enemy. Marie-Laures says that light "is the basis of his fear, all fear. That a light you are powerless to stop will turn on you and usher a bullet to its mark." For Entienne, light is a great weight that ails him. He is a recluse that stays within his house fearing the outside world. When he finally leaves his house after 24 years, *spoiler* "any light, even through closed eyelids, became excruciatingly bright." He does not last long once he leaves the house.

For his housekeeper, Madame Manec, the light is somewhat of a cathartic savior ... "her privation and fear are rinsed away by wind and color and light." For the tumor ridden Nazi, Von Rumpel, the only time he seems to come into contact with light is in Marie-Laure's apartment and that light is "strange." He is a very complicated character. His obsession is of a diamond which ultimately is a very old piece of coal which we  already established is only light after all.

I tend to enjoy books with beautiful writing over books with an intricate plot. I would much prefer a Henry Miller novel with his bold beautiful and sometimes offensive paragraphs and little plot over a Stephen King novel full of pithy dialogue and the steady beat of a story.  The language of All the Light We Cannot See is so beautiful that I sometimes forget about the plot and get a little lost in the language. The descent into a novel is a lot like the descent into a coal or diamond mine ... the plot is what keeps you going deeper. In All the Light We Cannot See, Doerr's language are the diamonds you find along the way.

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