All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

4889781704589312A girl. A boy. A war. It seems like you have heard it all before, and in many ways you have. An other-worldly jewel which can change your life for good or bad. You have probably heard that one too. Yet not exactly like this.

With historical events as setting, the reader already knows the ending. We just wait and wait and wait… waiting to see whether these characters will be the ones who defy the Nazis, maintain their humanity, and whether they will suffer less than so many who suffered so much. In a war there is not much room for fairytales and magic, yet here is another novel where it happens.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It is difficult to write about the World Wars because it is so easy to forget when the afflicted generations fade away. Not many are left and it is now up to generations not witnessing the horrors to remember. Every year on the 27th of January, the world marks the day for the liberation of the first concentration camp Auschwitz-Berkenau in 1945, the day it dawned on the world what cruelties there really could be habouring in humans. Most are still in shock over it and yet others attempt to mark it as lies. In these cases it is easy to paint only black and white, and yet there exists the whole spectrum between them. What of that? What of those? Colours are said to be light filtrated through our eyes, like rainbows which humans are supposedly the only creatures being able to see. What can a blind girl from Paris do to navigate this spectrum when people with vision are blinded? What can a boy in Nazi-Germany do to hear what adults don’t want him to hear and shut out what he does not want to know? And how to keep your eyes open despite it all?

A phrase continuing throughout the story, Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever,’ is the constant reminder to the reader of the story, more so than the characters. Keep alert and enlightened about what is happening. As important today as it was then. All media can be twisted and tweaked to fit another’s mission. Propaganda. The word derives from the latin word ‘Propagare’ which means to spread, like the related word ‘propagate’ in botany. State sanctioned rumours and stories created to spread and take roots in the audience. So how can we trust our senses when we are bombarded with propaganda from one wing or another constantly? In a present situation with no knowledge of the ending we cannot. We can only look back in history and try to learn from their mistakes. To seek enlightenment, to open our own eyes, and perhaps lastly close our bodily eyes and feel what our inner third eye is showing us when all else fail.

The story of the magic jewel, the Sea of Flames, echoes the tale of the Moonstone by Wilkie Collins which also inspired the myth of the Hope diamond; that from the depths of the Earth a gemstone with powers of a deity can come and change the course of a mere human life. The novel continuesly go back and forth in believing the story and renouncing it as superstition; Yet the house still stood after a bombing. Yet she was unhurt, a blind girl in a strange place, but all around her were not as lucky. If you loose everyone you love but is not harmed yourself, is that luck? This is another place where Anthony Doerr echoes another of recent years’ great novels about the war, The Book Thief. The atmosphere reminded me of it when I read All the Light We Cannot See, and I constantly had it in the back of my head, giving commentary on yet another story from a war trying to eradicate stories. By burning books, people, buildings, Nature. That there was something even bigger than human vices, be it Death himself working or the power of a cursed jewel, to challenge the all too physical and pointless horror. When life becomes too horrific to handle, where else to turn, to take you away, you relinquish your guilt, your lack of strength?

The supernatural story of the Sea of Flames is what I find show the most human response to the book’s terror: we don’t understand and don’t want to understand. We just want it to stop and therefore we are ready to believe. It works – at a prize. Because the carnage of the aftermath still lingers, still holds us down, and still makes us want to be blind. If we can point to something with the guilt we feel and say, ‘It’s that thing’s fault! It made me do it!’, we believe we can find rest. Yet that is the thing, isn’t it? We have blinded ourselves again and spread another reason why we were not to blame when the truth were burning in our own eyes. We have stuffed our ears with our own cries to cover those of others. Because what can one little human being do? The answer is both nothing and anything. Whatever echoes the answer to the question, ‘Can you live with the knowledge?’ The world still lives with the knowledge that Holocaust happened and that it is on the brink of happening again. Because many want rest from knowing. Enlightenment and knowledge is ruthless. It is not a sunny day where you can see far out into the distance. Knowledge also means seeing yourself and your ways and all the ways you have tried to disguise and forget. All the times you have failed. Failed in protecting the ones you love, failed in doing your duty, failed in realizing where you owe your duty.

We are ready to point every finger we have and say it was all the Nazis’ fault. No doubt they are to blame! But what of the rest of the world being blinded for long and longer still? Those who attempted to survive and protect their loved ones? War is never easy and times of war, which we are living in today as well, demands the use of the phrase throughout the book even more, especially when we are not the ones directly hurt.

In this way, All the Light We Cannot See establishes yet another important reminder to current and prospective readers. Where the story itself about the boy and the girl is heartwarming and heartbreaking in all the right places, that story has been told so many times I am not even sure I need to describe it. In fact, I appear to have greater affinity for the secondary characters: the great uncle who has not ventured outside since he returned from the Great War, the Nazi jeweller on the hunt for the Sea of Flames but burning inside with cancer, the bird-fascinated boy Friedrich at the Nazi-jugend academy, the great uncle’s housekeeper who organizes the local resistance to the Nazis, and last but not least the boy’s sister who saw through it all and had to live through the aftermath of what her countrymen had done. Her chapters at the end especially, had my heart in my throat, and serves as a reminder of the aftermath of the aftermath of a war. And that is where Doerr really worked magic to me along with the description of sound as if sound was suddenly visible and tangible. These things are what makes this a great novel and why I would recommend it. Despite people already knowing the story.


Dansk:

Alt det lys vi ikke ser er en historie vi allerede kender slutningen på fra starten. Sådan er det med romaner, som tager plads omkring virkelige begivenheder, og i de senere år har der været en del omkring 2. Verdenskrig på grund af 70-års mindeåret i 2015, og fordi generationerne, som oplevede den begynder at forsvinde. Den jeg selv havde i baghovedet da jeg læste var Bogtyven af Markus Zusak. For også denne handler om en pige og en dreng med magi omkring sig på trods af krig. Om det er Døden selv, som fortæller om sit virke eller en diamant, som beskytter en selv men ødelægger alle omkring en, med reference til Wilkie Collins’ Månestenen, så kunne jeg ikke lade være med at sammenligne de to romaner.

I krig er der ikke meget plads til magi, med alle de rædsler og mareridt man forsøger at holde nede i sig selv. Hvad kan en blind pige så lærer læseren om at se? Og hvad kan en dreng lærer os om at lytte når han allermindst selv har lyst til det? Et gennemgående citat, “Åben dine øjne og se hvad du kan med dem inden de lukkes for evigt”, synes mere en opfordring til læseren end til karaktererne i romanen. For vi lever jo også nu i en krigstid, blot er de fleste af vores længde- og breddegrader ikke berørt direkte, men vi lever alligevel også med følgerne og må derfor også tage stilling. Specielt når medier er så obskure og man aldrig er helt sikker på hvis dagsorden man hører. Hvor meget kan vi tillade os selv at lukke øjnene for og hvor meget behøver vi selv at gøre? Hvor meget kan vi pege på andre og give dem skylden for? Hvor mange gange er det ikke blot for at få fred, men ikke for at kunne se sig selv i øjnene?

Det er store etiske og personlige spørgsmål, men en krig er også altid stor og der er altid personer involveret, om ikke andet så alle de overlevende. For hvad med dem? I denne roman er det især søsteren Jutta, som gennemlever krigens afslutning med al den rædsel der fulgte med russernes indtog i Berlin og omverdenens had årtier efter, som fik en tåre frem hos mig. Hendes liv står som en kommentar til alle dem, som blot prøvede at overleve på trods af at kunne se. Hvor meget kan man klandre dem for ikke at have stået nok i mod et regimes propaganda og virke når de blot forsøgte at kunne åbne øjnene igen næste morgen?

Sammen med Doerrs fortællekunst i at beskrive lyd som noget håndgribeligt og fysisk, så er de to hovedpersoner eller historien i sig selv dog ikke det som gør Alt det lys vi ikke ser til en anbefalelsesværdig bog, men derimod alt og alle omkring dem. Fortællingen om hvor længe man kan være blind overfor sig selv og andre og hvad der kan ske hvis man en dag vælger at åbne sine øjne inden de lukkes for evigt. Og det vil altid være en vigtig historie at fortælle igen og igen.

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About Ann-Cathrine 38 Articles
Established 1987 in Aarhus, Denmark. MA degree in English and Art History from Aarhus University, Denmark. Loves books, art, writing, coffee, dandelions, paper dolls, and haute couture.