The power of radio: a review of “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr

all-the-light-we-cannot-see All the Light We Cannot See is a historical novel by American author Anthony Doerr that won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Doerr, who lives in Boise, Idaho, tells the story of the coming of age of two children in the build up to and later outbreak of the Second World War in Western Europe.

There is the story of beautiful blind French girl Marie-Laure Leblanc who lives with her doting father in an apartment in Paris and loves reading, especially the adventure stories of Jules Verne.

Alongside her tale, Doerr narrates the story of  German boy Werner Pfenning, who grows up in an orphanage with his sister Jutta in a harsh coal mining town.

The war breaks out and Marie-Laure and her father flee Paris and the Nazis to live with her charismatic aunt Madame Manec and her reclusive uncle Etienne in their tall, narrow house in Saint-Malo, a walled French maritime town on the English Channel.

Over in Germany, Werner, a sensitive and kind boy, becomes old enough to be sent to work down the mines – a job which killed his father – but is saved from this fate by his ability to fix radios.

After skilfully repairing the radio of a Nazi commander’s girlfriend, Werner is selected to attend the elite Nazi academy, The National Political Institute of Education, where he receives formal training in electronics and helps create a gadget to locate enemy radio transmissions, but where he is also exposed to cruel Nazi ideology about the ‘master race’ and witnesses first hand its brutal methods.

Marie-Laure meanwhile must cope with the disappearance of her beloved father, who never returns from a trip to Paris, and learn to use the wooden model of Saint-Malo that he crafted for her, to help her navigate the streets of the walled town.

As the war heads towards it destructive conclusion and the Nazis invade Saint-Malo the two young characters are drawn closer and closer through the power of radio:  Werner, still only a teenager, has been drafted into the army, where his job as part of a truck unit that rumbles through the decimated countryside is to use the electronic device he helped design, to detect the locations of enemy radio transmissions (and eliminate the perpetrators); at the same time Marie-Laure collects bread from the local bakery with coded message for the French resistance baked into the loaves, that her uncle then reads out through a secret radio broadcast from the top floor attic of their home.

anthony doerr

Anthony Doerr

In an interview Anthony Doerr gave on Idaho Public Television he revealed that the title of the book, All the Light We Cannot See, referred to the invisible electro-magnetic waves that powered radio broadcasts during the Second World War and that today power things like mobile phones. (I thought it might refer the ability of a blind girl, to see the world vividly through her imagination).

Doerr says the idea to put radio at the heart of his story came to him about 10 years ago when he was on a train pulling into Penn Station in New York and a guy was getting more and more angry because his phone call kept dropping out.

“How did we get to the point that we took this technology for granted? …All this invisible light that carries messages. I felt we had forgotten what a magical thing that was,” he said.

In Europe during the war it was radio which had this magical power to connect people who were thousands of miles apart and which played a crucial role in the outcome of the war.

“When I was thinking about strategies for writing this book, all I knew was that I wanted to have a blind girl reading a book (Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) over the radio to a boy,” Doerr says.

On a trip to France, he visited the beautiful town of Saint-Malo and says he was amazed to discover it had been practically flattened by American bombs and then restored almost brick by brick.

“I knew somehow the boy would be trapped and needing this radio transmission as some kind of life line,” Doerr said in the same interview.

He spent 10 painstaking years writing and crafting the complex book and was rewarded with it winning the Pulitzer Prize and becoming a huge commercial success.

While it is a brilliant story with many memorable characters and a powerful message about bravery and human decency in the face of terrible circumstances , I was a little disappointed with Doerr’s decision to write it in short chapters that not only move back and forwards between the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner , but also move back and forwards in time, between 1934 and the end of the war.

I found it created a disjointed rhythm and was sometimes confusing, requiring that I page back to see what period of time he was were referring to understand where I was in the sequence of events.

Also, at more than 500 pages, I felt it was unnessarily long and could have been even more powerful as a shorter book. While sometimes Doerr’s verbosity is warranted – he loves delving into how things work, the history of a minor event or character and delivering incredibly detailed descriptions – at times it feels overdone and rambling.

But, then again I am someone who likes the pared-down writing style of Hemingway, Orwell, Bukowski and Carver so maybe that’s just me. Others readers may love luxuriating in all the detail: after all it is an epic tail stretched out over a vast canvas, indeed it has major Hollywood film written all over it.

As a follow-up, if you have not yet read it yet, I suggest Australian writer Anna Funder’s All That I am, also set during the Second World War, about a group of German refugees who flee to London to escape the Nazis.

 

 

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My great great grandfather: the adventurous Prussian soldier who loved a drink

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This is a picture of my great great grandfather Heinrich Gimkiewicz  (with impressive beard) and his wife Helene taken in Berlin in 1881.

I have come to know a little about Heinrich through a self-published book by a cousin, Keith Kaye, a urologist who lives in Minneapolis.

Keith translated and published the diary Heinrich kept while serving as a non-commissioned officer during the Franco-Prussian war, a largely forgotten but bloody dispute that took place in Western Europe between July 1870 and May 1871, won by Prussia thus unifying the various German states.

The diary was bequeathed to the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg by Heinrich’s granddaughter Helga, It was here that I studied various degrees between 1992 and 1998, emerging, finally with a Bachelor of Arts in 1996 and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Management in 1998.

All that time, I had no idea a diary was kept by the University library detailing the daily marches, battles and ruminations of my distant paternal descendent.

When I began reading the translated diary entries I was at first bored. Heinrich details his movements from one town to the next, the long marches or train rides, complaints about the cold, waiting around for orders and details of the various civilian billets where he stayed in occupied French towns.

The names of towns and army commanders meant very little to me.

But as I read and persevered, I found Heinrich to grow more interesting and to see things in his personality that reminded me of myself.

It became apparent to me that my great great grandfather enjoyed a drink, preferably an alcoholic one (as I do) and sometimes drank until he was “tipsy”.

He writes of a stay in Rheims on November 12, 1870:

We stay here today, and so we try to get to know the town. Provisions are quite bad here, but there is lots of wine…

On November 16, in the hamlet of Coucy la Ville between La Fere and  Soissons:

It is quite nice here, there are lots of apples; the people make a pleasant drink out of them. It is available in quantity, and we like it very much, there being no wine.

And later, in Roumare on December 28:

I go and get my baggage, we prepare our meals and sit together until 10pm, having a good time. There is enough cider, each day we drink a considerable amount.

He was also fond of exploring the towns that he visited and had an appreciation of architecture, food and the hospitality and the customs of local French people, even if they were the ‘enemy’. However, unruly Frenchmen are not tolerated and one, he reluctantly admits to slapping.

He is also more than a little mischievous and I surmise – not always that honest  – with his diary entries – particularly when he visits a Rouen brothel:

It happens on February 16, towards the end of the war when he is billeted in the home of a cotton manufacturer. Heinrich writes that at 6.30pm he eats dinner with his landlord, “who is a very friendly man” then goes out again “this time on a less moral path”.

We want to have a look at a French brothel. There are many here. The first one is the Maison Stephan, which is high-class. The second one is a normal one. We return at 11pm.

No description is given of what he did for four hours, but we can guess. His fondness for the ladies reveals itself on a number of occasions with glowing descriptions of local landladys (one is”an aristocratic woman called Madam de Savers” who is “very friendly”) and the daughter of one of his landlords.

Rouen was a special place for Heinrich in the war. He writes of its bustling life after the armistice is declared and that “in all the places and in all the cafes it now becomes obvious  that this beautiful city belongs among the greatest in France”.

I would whole heartedly agree. My wife and I visited Rouen in the summer of 2010, staying in a little shoebox apartment above shops on the main road. Our landlord was a small, dark-skinned moustached man, who spoke not a word of English. We cooked tinned Cassoulet on a portable gas burner in the evening after exploring the exquisite, historic town in the day.

Now, I wonder, if I tread on the same cobbled stones as Heinrich did all those years ago as he explored the various districts and drunk in its cafes and restaurants.

Heinrich also writes intriguingly of the Yom Kippur service for Jewish soldiers, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.

A proud Prussian man willing to die for his country, Heinrich could not have known that this war, which unified Germany, would create some of the circumstances that led to the First World War in 1914 and later the Second World War, where German Jews were betrayed and murdered in their millions by their homeland.

He writes of the Yom Kippur service in St Barbe on October 6:

…all in all there were 400 men of our denomination there.  It was Rabbi Blumenstein who came especially from Mannheim…it was moving. Most of us had probably never prayed as intensely as we did today.

My favourite extract – and where I feel a strong connection with my great great grand father – comes towards the end of the campaign, when Heinrich’s regiment reaches the town of Fecamp, on the Atlantic Ocean:

Now we are to see the ocean. We are led there one platoon after the other, it is a gorgeous view…with its huge waves…a clear difference from our eastern sea. This mighty sea with its waves which exist in such height only here, surrounded by high white chalk cliffs is really indescribable and unforgettable. This great view truly compensates for all our strains of the last days and we are grateful to our captain who kept his promise.

With the war over, Heinrich returned Berlin and married Helene 10 years later. They had four children.

The family move to South Africa in 1899 was most likely sparked by a wave of anti-Semitism surging through Europe at the time and the prospect of making one’s fortune amid the gold fields of the Witwatersrand.

Heinrich’s daughter Else would later marry an Austrian-born geologist and mining engineer called Bruno Schlesinger in 1907 and I would emerge into the world in 1973, a chubby child with a curly mop of hair to carry on the Schlesinger name.

Heinrich ran a toy shop in  the centre of Johannesburg with merchandise imported from Germany. A photo outside the store shows him to be a dapper dresser in three-piece suit and hat, bearded with fob chain dangling from waist coat.

Heinrich, top left, in front of his Johannesburg toy shop

Heinrich, top left, in front of his Johannesburg toy shop

Sadly, anti-German feeling in 1915 following the sinking of the British ocean liner the Lusitania  forced Heinrich and his family into veritable hiding as mobs attacked anyone of German descent. Being unable to import German goods, he lost most of his customers.

Heinrich died in 1922 aged 75, 10 days after his wife Helene apparently of a broken heart. They are both buried in Johannesburg’s Brixton Cemetery.

– I think I would have enjoyed sharing a glass of wine with him. Or maybe some Cider.