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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Edward Snowden vs the NSA: who do you believe?

edward snowden2Conservatives, spy chiefs, President Obama, right-wing administrations, the Abbott government: they were all choking on their corn flakes when the Pulitzer Prize, the most prestigious award in journalism, was handed to the UK’s The Guardian  and the Washington Post for their articles about the surveillance activities of the National Security Agency (NSA) based on the leaks of Edward Snowden.

Even more galling for them would have been that the Pulitzer Prize was awarded in the category of “public service” for the newspapers’ “aggressive reporting to spark a debate about the relationship between the government and the public over issues of security and privacy” – since they consider Snowden to have done a great disservice to the public, even putting unnamed lives at risk.

It is hard to think of a figure that divides public opinion  more than Edward Snowden: “hero”, “whistleblower”, “traitor”, “treasonist”. These are the words used to describe the 30-year-old former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and NSA contractor, now in hiding in Russia.

The US government has charged him with espionage and revoked his passport, at the same time Norwegian parliamentarians Snorre Valen and Baard Vegar Solhjell have nominated Snowden for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Australia’s attorney general George Brandis called Snowden “criminally dishonest, treacherous and having put Australian lives at risk” in a speech in parliament. In response to Brandis, Greens Senator Scott Ludlam called Snowden a “whistleblower who I hold in highest regard”.

Where you stand on Edward Snowden defines your views on things like individual freedom, the right to privacy, the role and responsibility of government, access to information and democracy itself.

The Snowden leaks uncovered a hidden world of secret government activities in the US, UK and Australia including:

  • the bulk collection of phone records of US citizens by telecom Verizon including calls made to other countries, regardless of whether they are suspected of wrong-doing.
  • that the UK and US governments had access to user data held by Google, Facebook, Intel and others, including audio and video chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs.
  • that the NSA monitored the phone conversations of 35 world leaders including German chancellor  Angela Merkel, – a supposed Western ally
  • That the Australian government listened in on the phone conversations of Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s and his wife.
  • that the NSA “spied on the staff of prominent human rights organisations” including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch;
  • that there were programs like Prism or  XKeyscore, clandestine mass electronic surveillance data mining programs, which use sophisticated techniques to screen “trillions” of private communications.

These leaks highlighted the secret activities of the NSA, depicting it as a shadowy government organisation resembling “Big Brother” as described in George Orwell’s hugely influential 1949 novel “1984”. It was this book which coined the adjective “Orwellian” to mean official deception, secret surveillance, and manipulation.

It is not that surprising then that in the wake of the revelations about the NSA, sales of Orwell’s prophetic dystopian novel skyrocketed.

I regard Edward Snowden as a hero, an incredibly brave man who has sacrificed his own personal freedom to expose a government organisation obsessed with power, secrecy, data and control. Were it not for Snowden, the full extent of NSA activities and those of its UK and Australian counterparts would never been known.

But what of the other argument – the one that beats its fists against its chest proclaiming Snowden  a thief, traitor and criminal?

My own newspaper, the Australian Financial Review published an interview with General Keith Alexander, a spy and former head of the NSA, who not surprisingly slammed the Edward Snowden leaks.

This of course is the equivalent of asking the CEO of McDonald’s if he agreed that hamburgers were healthy.

According to General Alexander, the NSA is a “noble organisation that is “protecting our civil liberties and privacy” and that saves lives.

He says the very reports that won The Guardian and Washington Post the Pulitzer Prize are wrong and that it is a “fabrication” and “misperception” that the NSA is “listening into everyone’s calls, and reading everyone’s emails”.

General Alexander says the NSA has been “demonized” and painted as a “villain” by these very articles. when in fact the NSA is full of “honest, well-intentioned, hard-working, and patriotic people”.

The actions of Edward Snowden and the subsequent reports by The Guardian and the Washington Post, General Alexander says “have put so many lives at risk”.

The job of the NSA, General Alexander says, is to “stand watch” over our safety, which he says it does within legal means.

Of course he cannot actually tell us  the details of what the NSA is doing because that would compromise its role. In essence, we just have to trust him and the NSA.

Or if not him, then perhaps UK foreign minister William Hague who said in an interview that reports British intelligence agency Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) was gathering intelligence from phones and online sites “should not concern people who have nothing to hide” – a phrase that could have come straight out of an Orwell novel or perhaps the East German Stasi or KGB.

So do you believe General Alexander that the NSA is acting responsibly that the “overwhelming evidence falls in favour of the legality and legitimacy of what NSA has done”?

Or do you believe Edward Snowden, when he says the NSA is intent on “gathering intelligence where ever it can, by whatever means possible”?

There is of course a third view  – that you accept that the NSA  and other secretive government agencies are – as Snowden says – acting way beyond their remit, but in the name of protecting its citizens, that the end justifies the means.

But if you do, then you must also accept that your right to individual privacy is gone and that you are comfortable with the idea of a “Big Brother” watching over you as you type your email or make a phone call.

Perhaps it’s worth remember these chilling words of O’Brien, a member of the inner party who attempts to trick Winston Smith, the doomed hero of Orwell’s 1984:

There will be no loyalty, except loyalty towards the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — for ever.’