by Daniel Brown
Just as I had stated last month that Francine Prose’s novel The Chameleon Club is the best novel of 2014 to date, I read Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, which I think it’s safe to call a masterpiece. Written over a ten year period but just published, Doerr’s novel also takes place in Paris between the wars, as Prose’s novel does as well. It appears that this historical period of time is of tremendous renewed interest both by novelists and by historians and biographers. A recent non-fiction book examines intra-war France through its novelists and some of its politicians: the sense of France as a decadent culture not only reflected the lingering anti-Semitism from the Dreyfus era, but looks forward to the French collaboration with the Nazis, around this cultural idea of the decadent versus the refreshed and renewed Aryan so beloved of the rather effete Hitler and his inner cronies. All these books help clarify how some French opinion makers of the era were ripe for the cultural excesses and horrors of the Nazi era.
Anthony Doerr choses to examine the intra-war period through the lives of one blind French girl, Marie-Laure, and one orphaned but technically brilliant young German boy, Werner. Although the reader knows that at some point these two lives will intersect, we don’t know how and when, but Doerr examines the period in alternating chapters, where we live the lives of each of these children. He is not trying to make us sympathetic to the German cause, but he is asking us to understand the circumstances under which German children were reared between the wars, and to remember history is made of individuals and as well as of major leaders and their ideas, as well as by mass movements: this novel, thus, absorbs the three main views of history currently considered at odds with one another. Doerr supposes that the three overlap: his absorption of historicism is an overlooked theme of this novel, but a very important one.
Marie-Laure lives with her widowed father, who works for a museum in Paris which collects minerals from around the world. One of these is a rare diamond known as the Sea of Flames, and it comes with all sorts of myths and legends about its strengths and curses, and in the chaos of packing up the museum to prepare for the Nazi invasion of Paris, three fakes are made of this diamond and the real one leaves with her father, who flees to the Normandy/Brittany coast to the town of Saint-Malo, which the Germans have invaded, and which will be liberated by the Americans on D-Day. Marie’s father creates entire cities and villages in miniature, first Paris, and then Saint-Malo, so that his daughter can memorize the routes between here and there: he makes her independent. Much of their life in this tiny village is described, as different villagers collaborate with the Nazis or join the French Resistance. As the reader may know, the BBC radio was used to transmit vital information, under the rubric of reading birthdays or announcements of marriages, and the like, so that the role of radio in the war can be completely understood in this book.
Werner, of course, is a genius with electronics, and is brought to a special school for German children to be re-made into young Nazis; his sister remains skeptical, although it will mean advancement and riches for these two orphaned children later. One is astonished by the casual cruelty of German teachers with these students, and how students are pitted against one another, when an instructor asks “who is the weakest in the group?” repeatedly, and so we see Werner’s best friend literally torn apart by his peers when they catch on that he really wears glasses (no good Nazi would have needed them). Werner spends several years in the war finding radios broadcasting information from French partisans, and his partner murders them all. Eventually they are caught in a basement of a hotel in Saint-Malo, where memories of listening to his first radio with his sister come back to Werner, and where, of course the last radio in the area is coming from the house in which Marie-Laure lives. The missing diamond is also in the same house, where a member of the German high command has come to find it and steal it for his own personal pleasure: how he finds the other three tells us much about the German mind of the period and of the absolute abuse of power that we have wondered for decades is or is not a part of the German character. Doerr takes on every one of these issues.
But Anthony Doerr writes like an angel, in prose that is remarkably similar in its affect to Proust’s. One of the great joys of this novel is the kind of prose poetry which Doerr writes. Of course, it is a romantic novel at heart, and one can say that the good guys do win (mostly), but the emotion that Doerr is able to imbue in the reader is genuine, legitimate tour-de-force of writing, and his coda, if you will, involves the dead Werner’s sister receiving parts of the miniature house from a soldier who worked with Werner, and she will go back to Saint-Malo to trace their steps and their histories. Doerr believes in individual goodness, and in individual redemption. An overarching theme of the novel is about the power of love to motivate human beings to do things which seem beyond their ken or their abilities. Doerr thus reminds us that human nature includes the potential for nobility, for choosing good over evil, and for a transcendent redemption increasingly rare in contemporary fiction, because so rare in contemporary life.